Boston Breakthrough

May 25, 1988: The day the Pistons snapped a 21-game Garden streak

Bill Laimbeer and Larry Bird
Bill Laimbeer and Larry Bird
Dick Raphael (NBAE/Getty Images)
In the haze that accumulates over 25 years of memories, the way it might seem is that the Pistons rose to NBA champions in three orderly steps: lose in 1987 conference finals, lose in ’88 NBA Finals, win in ’89 NBA Finals. The memory says it was the Pistons’ destiny. And maybe it was. But the Celtics had other ideas.

We look back now and understand that 1987-88 was the year the Pistons clearly passed the Celtics. Boston went 22 years between NBA titles. Only when 1986 cast member Danny Ainge added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, combining them with holdover Paul Pierce, did the Celtics pull out of a two-decades funk administered by the Bad Boys.

There was a sense that the baton was being passed the night of June 3, 1988, when Kevin McHale stopped on his way to the Silverdome locker room to shake the hand of Isiah Thomas – they’d been Big Ten rivals at Minnesota and Indiana before landing in the NBA – and tell him to take the NBA title back to the Eastern Conference from the Lakers.

(History has glossed over the fact that Larry Bird and other Celtics had already departed for the locker room without any hint of a congratulations, though it’s the 1991 Pistons forever castigated for the premature departure of some – not all of them – rather than sticking around to shake hands with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.)

What there wasn’t a sense of was that the Celtics wouldn’t come hunting that baton again the following year. Bird was 31 and McHale 30 at the time, not exactly over the hill. Robert Parish was 34, but not showing any signs of slowing down. (And, in fact, Parish would play nine more seasons.)

Those Celtics finished the 1987-88 regular season with a better record than the Pistons, too, winning 57 games to Detroit’s 54. The teams had split their six regular-season games in a pattern that had held for the previous season’s playoffs: home court meant everything.

In those 1987 playoffs, the Pistons rolled to three wins at the Silverdome; the average margin of victory was 17.3. After two comfortable Boston wins to open the series (margins of 13 and nine) at the Garden, the Pistons came agonizingly close in losing games 5 and 7 by a combined four points.

But any idea that they were closing the gap on the Celtics was tough to prove by the results of the 1987-88 regular season. The Celtics won by 38, 11 and 11 at the Garden; the Pistons won by 23, 17 and five at the Silverdome.

When their Eastern Conference finals series opened on May 25 at the Garden, the Pistons’ losing streak there sat at 21 games. Their last win had come on Dec. 19, 1982. Scotty Robertson was their coach. Only Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson remained from the team that would finally snap the losing streak.

It happened fast – in Game 1 of the conference finals. Chuck Daly had been 0-20 as Pistons coach at the Garden before that moment. Isiah was brilliant that night, scoring 35 and passing for 12 assists.

The Pistons had stolen home court, but you couldn’t relax against those Celtics – ever. The Pistons learned the hard way the previous spring, when certain victory was stolen away in Game 5 at the Garden. Or maybe they didn’t learn. Up 2-1 in the series, they dropped Game 4 at the Dome. It was a miserable game. The final score was 79-78, the Pistons missing a mind-boggling 20 consecutive shots in the first half and falling behind by double-digits on a night they could have put the series in a stranglehold.

They had a chance to win at the end, but a Joe Dumars jumper came up short on a play the Pistons protested that Parish should have been whistled for goaltending.

So the Pistons went back to Boston Garden in the same uneasy spot as they’d been a year ago – tied in what was now a best-of-three series, two games scheduled for the Garden.

Amazingly, they extended their Garden winning streak to two games that night, Isiah again scoring 35 as the Pistons won in overtime. The Pistons didn’t want any part of having to win a Game 7 at the Garden, though, putting the pressure squarely on their shoulders to win Game 6.

They did. Parish, who’d been plagued by nagging leg injuries all season, twisted a knee early and had to leave. McHale and Bird were gassed. They’d had to play 40-plus minutes too many nights to carry a Boston team that had almost no bench.

We’ll talk about that lack of a Boston bench in the next True Blue Pistons.