1990 NBA Finals: Detroit 4, Portland 1
Bad Boys Still the Best
For the Detroit Pistons, pursuing the 1989 championship had been a do-or-die proposition. They had wanted the trophy that badly. And when the Pistons finally got their golden prize, they embraced it, kissed it, sweet-talked it and danced with it.
But they barely had time to come down to earth when they heard the news: General Manager Jack McCloskey had been forced to leave four players from the roster unprotected in the expansion draft, and among the four was Rick Mahorn, the team's starting power forward. The 6-foot-10, 255-pound Mahorn had been so much a part of the Pistons' mind-set that no one had really considered him a candidate.
McCloskey had tried without luck to make a deal that would keep Mahorn in Detroit. When the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves made him their pick, all of Detroit was stunned. Mahorn was devastated, but he maintained his composure. Point guard Isiah Thomas declared that with Mahorn's departure the "Bad Boys" would be laid to rest.
But coach Chuck Daly wasn't so sure that the Bad Boys label could be dismissed that easily. The Pistons had patented their aggressive style of play, though it would change a bit with Mahorn's departure. James Edwards and Dennis Rodman would become starters, and Mark Aguirre would move to the bench as sixth man. Edwards gave the team a post-up feature, but the Pistons would still rely on aggressive defense and a strong perimeter game.
For Isiah and his teammates, years of questions and doubts had been abruptly answered with the 1989 NBA title. Yet they also found that success merely meant that the old questions had been replaced by new ones. Was their title a fluke, made possible by Magic Johnson's hamstring injury? Would one ring be enough for the Pistons? Did they have the toughness to repeat?
An indication that the Pistons had grown a bit complacent came in January when the Lakers whipped them soundly in Auburn Hills, Mich. They responded to the loss to the Lakers by going on a 25-1 streak, third best in league history, stretching from January to March. Each successive win became more of a battle. Every team they met seemed ready to match the Pistons blow for blow.
As the Pistons were finding new life, the Lakers stumbled in the Western playoffs. They beat Houston in the first round but then came apart in the second round against a young and inspired Phoenix Suns team. The Suns won, four games to one, and in the aftermath Pat Riley decided to leave coaching to become a broadcaster for NBC. Just like that, the team of the '80s had come unraveled.
The Lakers' demise opened the way for the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference. The Blazers had always been considered a talented, dangerous team in the West. But for four straight years they had lost in the first round of the playoffs, and the subsequent frustrations led to team conflicts, particularly between coach Mike Schuler and 6-foot-7 shooting guard Clyde Drexler. In the middle of the 1988-89 season, the team had released Schuler and promoted his assistant, Rick Adelman, himself a former Portland guard.
In the offseason, the Blazers acquired veteran power forward Buck Williams from the New Jersey Nets. They had a quality starter at every position. Drexler, the high-flying scoring guard, led them in scoring with a 24.3 average, while Terry Porter, at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, gave them a big point guard with quickness. Jerome Kersey was a 6-foot-7 leaper at small forward who averaged 16.0 points and put out an inspired defensive effort just about every night.
Game 1 was played in the Palace on June 5, and the Pistons were anything but ready. For 41 minutes, the Blazers used their intensity to control the tempo. They rebounded. They played defense. They scored on offensive rebounds. With seven minutes left, the Blazers led 90-80.
Then, during a timeout, Isiah realized that he had to do something. Throughout the year he had worked on his three-point shot, but he hadn't quite developed the confidence to make it his main offensive weapon. Now he knew it was time.
What followed was an amazing turn of events. The Pistons turned up their defense, and it worked. Isiah got the Pistons going with a layup and a jumper. Then Joe Dumars completed a three-point play and Aguirre scored on an offensive rebound. In less than three minutes, Detroit had tightened the game to 92-89.
Williams gave Portland a little room with a jumper to move it to 94-89, but Isiah reeled off seven straight points. At 4:18 he stripped Porter of the ball, and when Porter tried to steal the ball back he drew a whistle. Thomas made both free throws, then hit a three-pointer moments later to tie the game at 94. On Portland's next possession, Drexler was whistled for an offensive foul, the Blazers' sixth turnover of the period. Thomas exploited it with an 18-footer that gave Detroit the lead, 96-94.
The Pistons then got another stop on defense and began searching for a way to expand their lead. Thomas worked the ball into three-point range, and Porter laid back, waiting for him to make his move. At 1:49, Isiah stunned the packed house and a nationwide television audience by sticking the open three-pointer for a 99-94 lead. The Pistons escaped with a 105-99 victory.
"We were dead in the water, belly up," said Daly. "It was just a special player making great shots."
The Blazers were more concerned about stopping Thomas. "We're going to throw a blanket over him, tackle him, and pull him over to the sideline," Drexler quipped. That seemed to be a fitting strategy for Game 2. Whatever the Blazers did, it kept them close enough to win it in the end.
The game tightened in the fourth, and it seemed the Pistons were on the verge of another outburst, this time from Bill Laimbeer. He had scored only seven points over the first three periods, then went wild in the fourth, hitting 19 points over the last 17 minutes. For the game, he laced in six three-pointers, tying a Finals record set by Michael Cooper in 1987.
But Drexler, on his way to a 33-point evening, quickly answered that with a trey of his own to tie it. The two teams grappled from there until 49.3 seconds were left, when John Salley soared to score on a tip-in and drew Kevin Duckworth's sixth foul. Salley missed the free throw, but his acrobatics gave Detroit a 94-91 edge.
Five seconds later, Drexler made a free throw. Then at the 23-second mark, Isiah proved his mortality by missing a layup. With 10 seconds left, Porter tied the game at 94 with a pair of free throws, and it went to overtime when Isiah missed an 18-footer at the buzzer.
The Pistons again surged in the extra period, first on a hook from Edwards, then on a pair of three-pointers from Laimbeer, the second of which gave Detroit a 102-98 lead with 1:30 left. Porter hit another set of free throws to trim the lead to two; then Drexler tied it at the one-minute mark with a 17-footer.
Portland finally took the lead at 104-102, and the Pistons faced a final possession without Isiah, who had fouled out with 1:10 left in overtime. But Laimbeer promptly bailed them out with 4.1 seconds remaining by hitting a 25-foot three-pointer for a 105-104 Pistons lead. Aguirre came rushing across the court to embrace Laimbeer, who shooed him away.
"After I hit the shot, I looked at the clock and saw there were four seconds," Laimbeer said later. "And in the NBA, four seconds is an eternity."
If not an eternity, it was at least enough time for the Blazers to work their offense. Portland got the ball to Drexler, and Rodman, who was playing on his bum ankle, promptly hand-checked him. The foul was called with two seconds left, and Drexler swished both of them for a 106-105 lead.
The Pistons showed that they, too, could set up and shoot on time. Edwards got a good shot from the left of the paint, but rookie Cliff Robinson came over and blocked it at the last second. With that, the Blazers had taken away the home-court advantage.
"At times we played stupidly, unemotionally," said Laimbeer, who finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
At that point the series took an unexpected emotional turn. Dumars' father, Joe Dumars II, died of congestive heart failure 1½ hours before the tipoff of Game 3 on Sunday, June 10. He had suffered from severe diabetes, which had forced the amputation of both of his legs in 1985. As his father's condition worsened, Dumars realized that the news of his father's death might come before or during an important game. So he asked Debbie, his new wife, not to inform him of any news until after the game had ended. His father had instilled such professionalism in Dumars, and his wife kept his wish.
It was a special afternoon for the Pistons. They had faced a crossroads headed to Portland with the series tied. They had to play without Rodman, whose ankle injury had worsened and who was replaced by Aguirre. The real test came from the venue. In a building where they hadn't won in 17 years, they needed to take at least one of the three games scheduled. True to their style, they wasted little time getting the job done.
For the first time in the series, Vinnie Johnson found his range, making 9 of 13 shots for 21 points. But Dumars was the most potent, leading Detroit with 33 points on an array of shots. At one point in the third period, Portland cut a sizeable Pistons lead to 68-60, but Dumars answered with a trey that stifled the Blazers' momentum.
Later, Isiah recalled watching Dumars and thinking that moments after he was through, his world would be devastated by word of his father's death. "It was hard to look at him at times," Isiah said. Moments after Detroit won, 121-106, Debbie Dumars used a courtside phone to inform Joe of his father's death. Dumars decided he would play the next game but declined press interviews.
The Pistons' shooting dipped below 40 percent in the first quarter of Game 4 while the Blazers raced off to a 32-22 lead at the end of the period. But Johnson and Dumars took over, leading a 9-0 run that pulled the Pistons to 32-31 with 7:49 left in the half and took a 51-46 lead at intermission.
Portland had scored only 14 points in the second period, and things grew worse right after halftime as a fired-up Thomas returned to score 22 points in the third. His three-pointer at the 2:15 mark pushed the Pistons to an 81-65 lead that quieted the Coliseum.
But it was a game of strange twists and turns. Over the next eight minutes, the Blazers suddenly remembered the pressure defense and running game that had gotten them to the NBA Finals. They turned on the gas and ran off a 28-11 run of their own. Porter drove for a layup to give them a 93-92 lead with 5:20 left in the game.
The teams exchanged the lead twice until Detroit gained a three-point edge with two minutes to go. The Pistons expanded that to 106-102 on a jumper by Dumars at 1:16, but the Blazers fought back and had a chance to tie it with 35 seconds left. But Williams missed one of two free throws and Portland trailed 106-105.
Four seconds later, in a scramble under the Pistons' basket, Laimbeer drew his sixth foul, and Drexler made both free throws to give Portland the lead, 107-106 with 31.8 seconds left. But Thomas responded by sinking a 22-footer that returned the edge to Detroit 108-107.
With nine seconds left, Porter attempted to drive on Dumars, but Joe blocked his path. The ball came loose, and Isiah scooped it up and headed the other way. Danny Young quickly fouled him, and an instant later Thomas let fly a 55-footer that went in. The officials quickly ruled it no good, but Thomas made the free throws for a 110-107 lead with 8.4 seconds showing.
Aguirre then fouled Porter with 6.5 seconds left, and he made both, drawing Portland to 110-109. On the ensuing play, Edwards got the ball downcourt to a wide-open Gerald Henderson, whom Daly had put in the game seconds earlier. Henderson took the ball in for an easy layup, and although he scored to put the Pistons up 112-109, his play gave Portland the ball and 1.8 seconds to get a shot.
The Blazers whipped the ball upcourt to Young, who promptly knocked down a 35-footer from the right sideline. Immediately players from both benches came onto the floor.
"Good! Good!" screamed the Blazers.
"No good!" answered the Pistons.
It would be the final game called by veteran referee Earl Strom, and it ended in bedlam. Strom huddled the officials amid the din and signalled that the shot was too late. Videotaped replays later confirmed the accuracy of the call. The Blazers were down, three games to one, and no team in Finals history had ever been that far down and made it back to win the championship.
For much of Game 5 it appeared Portland would at least send the series back to Detroit. While the Blazers played like their necks were on the line, the Pistons opened the fifth game slowly, missing seven of their first 11 shots, but still led 26-22 after one quarter. They held the same four-point edge at the half, 46-42, but the Blazers rallied in the third period, and with 10 minutes to play in the game, they led 77-69.
It was then that Johnson went on the first of two scoring binges. After struggling earlier in the game, "the Microwave" scored all of Detroit's points in a 9-0 run to give his team a 77-76 edge with 6:35 to go. The Blazers stepped up their pressure and again built a lead. At the 2:05 mark, they pushed it to 90-83. It looked like there would be at least one more game in Detroit. At just that point, Vinnie found his magic again. Johnson scored seven points in Detroit's astounding 9-0 run to close the game and the series.
In the final seconds, with the score tied at 90-90, Isiah worked the ball up top, but he was covered. So he sent the ball to Vinnie, who had Kersey draped all over him. But, ball of muscle that he was, Johnson exploded into the air and launched a 15-footer from the right sideline with 0:00.7 showing on the clock. (His teammates would later take to calling him 007, the James Bond of Basketball.) One of his typical low-projectile missles, it just cleared the rim, and punctuated Portland's nightmare with a gentle swish. The Blazers had lost three straight at home.
Because he was the primary culprit in their dismantling, Thomas was named the Finals MVP. He had scored 33, 23, 21, 32 and 29 points, respectively, in the five games. From three-point range he had made 11 of 16 shots. For the series, he had averaged 27.6 points, eight assists, and 5.2 rebounds, a performance that caused him to unleash his full smile afterward.
"You can say what you want about me," he said, "but you can't say that I'm not a winner."
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