In the 1980s and early 1990s there was an air of excitement around Detroit basketball that was palpable. The Pistons were a thrilling team with a stable of characters and great players. That team earned the nickname “Bad Boys” due to their hardnosed, take-no-prisoners style of defense. They also earned two NBA titles.
Here’s a look at nine of the greatest games in that playoff run from 1987 to 1990 when Detroit made it to four straight conference finals and three NBA Finals.
Isiah’s Last-Second Shot Beats Hawks at The Dome
Game Four of 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Pistons 89, Hawks 88
The Pistons were trailing the Hawks 88-87 with five seconds left and the ball at halfcourt. The inbounds pass went to Isiah who took a one-on-one matchup at the top of the key and dribbled into the paint only to draw a double team. He split the defenders, drifted to his right and scooped a layup that went down. 89-88 Pistons! In a pure moment of exuberance, Isiah grabbed the ball after Atlanta called a timeout and danced around under the basket. Rick Mahorn carried the captain to the sidelines and one second later after an Atlanta miss, Detroit was up 3-1 in the series. Three days later they eliminated the Hawks and advanced to the conference finals.
There’s a Steal By Bird!
Game Five of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
Celtics 108, Pistons 107
Pistons were up with the ball in Isiah’s hands and only had to run the clock out to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, Thomas tossed a lazy pass which was swiped by Larry Bird and resulted in a layup to give Boston the lead and the game. It was the lowest point of the Bad Boys Era, but still an amazing moment in NBA history.
Bad Boys Finally Vanquish the Celtics
Game Six of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals
Pistons 95, Celtics 90
After agonizing losses to the Celtics in the 1985 and 1987 playoffs, the Pistons were facing their nemesis again in 1988. But this time Detroit was ready to teach the veteran Celtics a lesson. They split the first four games before Detroit won Game Five in overtime 102-96 at the Boston Garden. In Game Six back at the Silverdome, the Pistons finally vanquished Boston, beating them with a defensive hammering in the third quarter when they held the Celts to 17 points. Dennis Rodman pestered Larry Bird and held him to just 16 points. Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards came up huge off the bench, scoring 24 and 15 points.
Bad Boys Stun Defending Champ Lakers in L.A. to Take Game One
Game One of 1988 NBA Finals
Pistons 105, Lakers 93
After finally winning the conference title, the Pistons traveled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers, the defending NBA champions. The oddsmakers made the Pistons an underdog, most of them predicting that the Lakers would simply outgun Detroit with their fastbreak offense. But in Game One at The Forum the Pistons were the team that ran out to a big lead. In the second quarter they outscored the Lakers 35-19 to take a commanding lead. Adrian Dantley could hardly miss, going 14-for-16 from the field and 6-for-7 from the free throw line to score 34 points. Detroit’s D collapsed on a befuddled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to limit the superstar to just eight points. The Pistons danced off the court with a road win in Game One of the finals.
Phantom Foul on Laimbeer Robs Isiah & Pistons of Title in L.A.
Game Six of the 1988 NBA Finals
Lakers 103, Pistons 102
In one of the NBA’s greatest Finals performances, Isiah poured in 25 points in fourth quarter on a sprained ankle as he single-handedly drove the Pistons toward a possible title. With sevem seconds left the Pistons led by one point when Kareem backed in for one of his patented skyhooks defended by Bill Laimbeer. The official blew his whistle and called Laimbeer for a “phantom foul” (replays showed that he never touched Kareem’s shooting arm). The Lakers made three free throws down the stretch and won the game to force a game seven, which they won. But Isiah’s 43 points and amazing play down the stretch showed how “big” the little point guard could play in key games.
Jordan Held in Check As Pistons Take Control in ’89 Conference Finals
Game Five of 1989 Eastern Conference Finals
Pistons 94, Bulls 85
In 1989 the Pistons still had a big chip on their shoulders. They’d advanced to the Finals the year before but they weren’t able to get past the Lakers. They knew they were the best team in basketball, they just had to finish it off in the postseason. After sweeping the Celtics and Bucks they squared off against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls shocked Detroit by winning the first game in Motown as Jordan scored 32 points on the strength of 29 shots from the field. After winning the second game the Pistons split two games in Chicago and returned home tied 2-2 in their series. Faced with a critical game, the Pistons relied on “The Jordan Rules” — a set of tactics designed to shut down Jordan and force someone else on the Bulls to beat them. In Game Five at The Palace the Detroit defense smothered Air Jordan, holding him to just eight shots in the entire game. Jordan scored just 18 points on 4-of-8 from the field and the Pistons won 94-85 to take control of the series. They eliminated the Bulls in Game Six in Chicago two nights later.
Pistons Defense Clamps Down on Lakers for First NBA Title
Game Four of 1989 NBA Finals
Pistons 105, Lakers 97
At the Forum in LA the Pistons’ defense shut down the Lakers in the fourth quarter to complete a sweep and win their first NBA Title. The Pistons capped off a dominating 15-2 postseason in which they won their first seven games and their last seven games. In 15 of their postseason games Detroit held their opponent to fewer than 100 points as they established themselves as one of the best defensive squads in recent NBA history. Joe Dumars scored 23 points in Game Four of the Finals, scoring 13 from the free throw stripe as he manhandled the Lakers overmatched backcourt (which was minus injured Magic Johnson). Dumars was named Finals MVP. Detroit held LA’s high-powered “Showtime” offense to just 19 points in the fourth quarter as they erased a six-point half-time deficit. This was also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final NBA game.
Pistons Give Pippen and Bulls a Migraine
Game Seven of 1990 Eastern Conference Finals
Pistons 93, Bulls 74
The Bulls pushed the Pistons to a Game Seven, but it was played at The Palace and Detroit was still too much for their rivals at the other end of I-94. The Pistons held the Bulls to just 33 points in the first half as they soared to a pretty easy win, 93-74. Isiah Thomas was all over the place, scoring 21 points with 11 assists, 8 rebounds, two steals, and a block.
Vinnie’s Jump Shot Sinks Blazers for Pistons’ Second Title
Game Five of the 1990 NBA Finals
Pistons 92, Trail Blazers 90
With seconds ticking down in Game Five, Vinnie Johnson got the ball from Isiah, dribbled, deked, and jumped. He let go one of his line drive shots and it was nothing but net. Only 0.7 seconds remained on the clock. The Pistons won and finished off a three-game sweep in Portland to take the NBA Finals, 4-1. Johnson scored 10 points in the last 3:47 of the game to cap a furious comeback for the Bad Boys as they won their second straight title.