1991 marked the unofficial end of the Bad Boys era of Detroit Pistons basketball. With nine players on their playoff roster aged 30 or older, combined with a litany of injury issues throughout the year and a pile of off-court distractions, the notion of a three-peat seemed far off into the distance.
Still, after being pushed to a do-or-die Game 5 in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks then eliminating a similarly aging Boston Celtics team in six, the Pistons found themselves matched up with a 61-win Chicago Bulls team in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was the fourth year in a row the two teams had met in the postseason, though it marked the first time the Bulls would hold a decided advantage.
Knowing they had the upper hand, the Bulls took to sharp criticism of the Pistons' style of play from atop their throne.
"Outside of Detroit, I think people will be happy they're not the reigning champions anymore," Bulls guard Michael Jordan said prior to Game 4. "It'll mean we are getting back to a clean game and getting the Bad Boy image away from the game. I think people want to see that type of basketball out."
Moreover, a previously budding rivalry between Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen came to a head in 1991. Whereas Rodman tended to operate on the periphery of his Bad Boys brethren during their championship years, he became the team's cheap shot ringleader in '91, culminating in a Game 4 incident in which he shoved Pippen into the stands following a Pippen foray to the rim. Pippen sustained a cut to the chin that required six stitches in the incident, though the contact that induced the injury may have come from an errant Bill Laimbeer elbow and not from the Rodman-induced fall.
Prior to Game 4, in a conversation with NBC sideline reporter Ahamad Rashad, Pippen also had sharp criticism for the Pistons, and Rodman in particular.
"Scottie Pippen told us before the game that he thinks Dennis Rodman is one of the cheap shot artists of the game," Rashad relayed. "He tries to do some cheap stuff then pats you on the behind and says, 'C'mon, let's play ball' but it's all in the guise of being cheap tactics."
Following Chicago's Game 4 clincher, Rodman remained defiant.
"Why should we give them any credit?" Rodman asked. "They didn't give us any. The NBA got what they wanted, Jordan in the Finals. You read their script and you play by it. Michael Jordan is God."
"I don't think Michael Jordan is God," Pistons forward John Salley quipped, "but I got my second foul today for looking at him wrong."
For his post-whistle shove of Pippen, Rodman was fined $5,000 but NBA operations director opted not to levy a suspension. ''There was no punch,'' Thorn said. ''He just shoved him. It wasn`t in the best interests of the game, but it was not to the degree that a suspension was warranted, although we talked about it.''
Rodman sent an apology letter to Pippen two days following the incident, though Pippen doubted whether the words were Rodman's own. Five years later, when Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen in Chicago, head coach Phil Jackson insisted that Rodman first apologize to Pippen for the '91 incident before moving forward.