‘They Would Intimidate the Team’: Phil Jackson Reveals Why Michael Jordan and the Bulls Struggled to Beat the Pistons

Published 04/05/2021, 7:30 AM EDT
Chicago Bulls # 23 Michael Jordan sitting next to Bill Cartwright on the bench during the Chicago Bulls vs New York Knicks game on May 14 , 1993 at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Tom Berg/WireImage)


Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were arguably one of the greatest teams ever. With a dynasty that lasted almost a decade, the Bulls dominated the 90s. Jordan was easily the best player in the world for his entire tenure in the NBA and led the Bulls to incredible success. But it wasn’t an instant success for Jordan and the Bulls. They had to overcome a lot of challenges, and none were bigger than the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons.

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Phil Jackson talks Bulls vs Pistons

Former Chicago Bulls head coach, Phil Jackson, spoke to Coby Karl recently. Jackson noted that the multiple series against the Detroit Pistons were always very difficult. The Pistons would try to intimidate the Bulls in order to get a reaction out of them, and the Bulls would respond, which caused numerous problems for them during the series.

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Jackson said, “Every time we got into the playoffs with the Detroit Pistons, it was about their intimidation. They would intimidate the team so they’d retaliate. And retaliation never worked. The retaliation worked because some got thrown out, some got in foul trouble, Scottie Pippen got a concussion, all these things.”

NBA Basketball -Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen during a March 22, 1997 game at United Center in Chicago. (.) (Photo by Darren Whitley/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Jackson added that the Pistons played with a great degree of physicality. Their strength and muscle allowed them to overpower the Bulls, and the team felt compelled to react to what they were doing. To a certain degree, Jackson thinks fear may have played a part in it and said:

“They had the muscle, they had the beef, and they were applying it, and they’d bring the game up to a certain point where it became so physical that you almost had to react or feel like you had to react. And so it developed this heat, maybe fear was even part of it.”

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Michael Jordan was not scared of the Pistons

However, Jackson added that Michael Jordan was not afraid of the Pistons. But he was the victim of their targeted physical play and would often find himself on the ground. Ultimately, Jackson noted that the Bulls were almost glad to face the Pistons because they had an opponent who forced them to get better.

Jackson added, “Michael was never fearful, but he was getting knocked down by two or three guys, it was just part of their defense, knocking down…We have to be thankful that we have this opponent that’s going to challenge us in such a way that we have to overcome even our deepest fears and our reluctance to give in to this battle and accept it.”

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Jackson added that the physicality of the Pistons forced the Bulls to adapt their game. If the Pistons were stronger, the Bulls were going to be faster. The Bulls didn’t hate the Pistons but saw them as a hurdle they had to overcome. The former head coach said:

“They are more physical than we are. They are a bigger, stronger, heavier team. But we’re quicker and we’re more active, and we move the ball, and we do these other things. So it kind of fit all together with this idea that it’s not a hate thing anymore, this is kind of like a challenge to be better than and rise up above.”

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Are the Chicago Bulls the greatest dynasty of all time? Between 1991 and 1998, the Bulls won six out of the eight NBA titles. In the two years that they missed, Michael Jordan had stepped away from basketball. After his return in 1996, the Bulls went on to get their second three-peat.

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Aaditya Krishnamurthy

1173 articles

Aaditya Krishnamurthy is an NBA & NFL journalist for EssentiallySports, before which he worked at BusinessWorld magazine. He has been a fan of Basketball for over 10 years now, since Shaquille O’Neal was a Phoenix Suns player. During his time at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, he started a sports magazine for the college called the Overtime Tribune and hosted the Overtime Tribune Podcast until he graduated.

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