Bad is Best... Again
The 1989 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons were on top of the world. Their four game sweep of the Lakers to win the franchise’s first championship cemented the Bad Boys in the annuls of basketball history. Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, their mission was not complete.
Just after the championship rally, the team learned that the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves had selected Pistons enforcer Rick Mahorn in the expansion draft. Their summer trip to meet President Bush would be the last time the original Bad Boys would be together as a team. Though Mahorn was gone, they returned Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, and Mark Aguirre, along with coach Chuck Daly, to defend the title.
This Detroit club was determined to remain on its perch atop the leagues standings. The club would finish the season 59-23, the second best record in the league. They had winning streaks of six, 13, and 12. While the intensity remained, the league fines went down. The 1989-90 Pistons were fined less than half the amount they paid the previous year. NBA disciplinarian and former Pistons Rod Thorn was even quoted saying, “The Pistons have been on their best behavior this season. They’re just concentrating on playing good, solid basketball
Central Division rivals, the Indiana Pacers were the first obstacle in the Pistons’ 1990 NBA Playoff drive to repeat. With a dominating effort on defense and the boards, the Pistons coasted to a three-game sweep, becoming the first team in playoff history to hold a team under 92 points per game. As they waited for their second round opponent to emerge, rumors began to swirl about Chuck Daly retiring after the season to join NBC’s announcing team. Just before the second round began, Dennis Rodman was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Rodman was the first Pistons player to win any league-wide award since Dave Bing was named Rookie of the Year in 1967.
In the second round, the Pistons faced Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, who had just completed a tough five-game series with the Boston Celtics. During the series, the Chuck Daly rumors grew louder. It was reported that the Chuck Daly NBC job was a done deal and K.C. Jones would become the next head coach of the Pistons. Unfortunately for New York, the off-the-court rumors could not derail the Pistons drive. They finished the Knicks in five games, to set up their third consecutive playoff meeting with the Chicago Bulls.
The Pistons had been where the Bulls stood, a young hungry team, faced with a seemingly immovable object. For the Pistons, that object had been the Boston Celtics. For the Bulls to reach the pinnacle of the league, they had to find a way to defeat the Pistons. Just as their two previous postseason meetings had been, this affair was a tough, hard-fought seven game series, with both teams holding serve at home. Surprisingly, it was a headache for Bulls forward Scottie Pippen that would change Game Seven. Pippen developed a migraine just minutes into the game. He would play 42 gutsy minutes, but shoot one for ten and score only two points. The Pistons took control of the game in the second quarter by outscoring the Bulls 31-14.
The Pistons had again reached the NBA Finals for the third time in as many years. However, unlike the previous two years, the Los Angeles Lakers were not waiting in the wings. This time, the Pistons would battle the Portland Trailblazers and All-Stars Clyde Drexler and Kevin Duckworth. The teams split the first two games at The Palace. As the series moved to the great northwest, the Pistons had some demons to overcome. They had not won in Portland in 16 years, a streak of 20 consecutive games. Dennis Rodman had an ankle injury and Vinnie Johnson was mired in a three for 25 shooting slump. To make matters worse, about 90 minutes before tip-off, Joe Dumars’ father, Joe Dumars II, passed away from complications caused by diabetes. On the advice of Joe’s wife, Daly withheld the information until after the game. The unaware Dumars tallied 33 points and Vinnie Johnson ended his slump with 21 points. After the game, Dumars received the devastating information. Dumars’ mother insisted that he remain with the team and finish the job they had begun. The Pistons also won Game Four 112-109, to take a commanding three games to one series lead.
The Pistons faced a tough test in Game Five. It is often said that a team facing elimination is most dangerous. The Blazers were now forced to play for their playoff lives. The Pistons trailed 90-83 with two minutes left and Isiah Thomas on the bench, bloody from an inadvertent elbow to his nose. The Pistons scored seven consecutive points and with 20 seconds remaining had the ball. With the Blazers double-teaming Thomas, and Dumars closely guarded, the third option, Vinnie Johnson, got the ball on the wing with four seconds on the clock. Johnson took one dribble, and with seven-tenths of a second remaining, he pulled up for a 17-foot jumper. Money!! With less than one second remaining, 0.07 to be exact Vinnie Johnson had given the Pistons back-to-back NBA World Championships.
Isiah Thomas was named Finals MVP, after averaging 27.6 points per game. At only 29 years of age, Thomas was at the top of the basketball world. He had led his team to wins over Magic, Bird, Jordan, and Drexler. He had sacrificed his ability to score at will to do the things that made his team successful.
Unfortunately, this would be the last time the Pistons would sniff the NBA Finals, for more than 14 years. No team had dominated the entire league like the Pistons. Many teams could outscore their opponents or play lock-down defense when the game was on the line. But no other team could intimidate its opponents before the opening tip like the Pistons. The Pistons played 48 minutes of stifling defense, and packaged it with intensity on the offensive and defensive glass and a free-flowing offense to create the “Baddest’ dynasty in NBA history.