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The Bad Boy Pistons were tough as nails, but exceptionally talented too.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

'89 Pistons too good to be known only for being Bad

By Fran Blinebury,
Posted Jul 25 2011 11:11AM

They were part talent and part swagger, a mixture of bravado and brilliance, one minute dazzling with their slick skill and the next pulverizing with an elbow to the throat.

They were the gold standard of their era and yet they were known more for their black hat image.

The Bad Boys.

The image of the 1989 Pistons was so deeply ingrained that you half expected them to show up at the arena on motorcycles, swinging chains and tire irons instead of pick-and-roll jumpers.

"Yeah, they really enjoyed the notoriety and the notion that they would not back down from anyone," their late Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly once said. "They loved to play up to the whole persona that surrounded them. But the truth is they were a bunch of guys who loved to play and understood everything about being a team and what it took to get to the top."

Nobody understood and lived through the struggle more than their leader, Isiah Thomas, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1981 Draft, who lifted the franchise that won just 16 games a year before he arrived to the top of the basketball world. But not without a struggle.

Thomas' cherubic smile belied the heart of the fiercest competitor on the court and was the perfect complement to center Bill Laimbeer, who mixed a so-soft touch on mid-range jumpers with the gleeful dirty tricks of a comic book villain in the lane.

They were joined by the 1-2 pogo-stick combination of young John Salley and Dennis Rodman on the front line, with solid low-post presence James Edwards.

Thomas' backcourt partner Joe Dumars was the one member of the Pistons who never indulged in the shenanigans on the court, yet was no less of a star. Vinnie Johnson came off the bench to heat up faster than a microwave. And when Mark Aguirre came over in a surprising trade for Adrian Dantley just after the All-Star break, all of the pieces were finally in place.

It was Daly who herded them like cats, pulling the collection of individuals together and focusing most of their attention to the defensive end of the floor. Unlike all of the NBA champions that preceded them, the Pistons packed their punch on defense.

With Dumars and Rodman making the All-Defensive First Team, the Pistons limited their opponents to 100.8 points a game and a field-goal percentage of .447, ranking second in the NBA in both categories. They closed with a rush, posting a 16-1 record in March, and won a franchise-record 63 games, best in the NBA.

Boston Celtics' president Red Auerbach had called the Pistons "classless bullies" and that label seemed to only stiffen their resolve when the teams squared off in the playoffs for a fourth time in five years, a first-round matchup the Bad Boys won in a sweep.

Next they swept Milwaukee, then beat Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games to earn an NBA Finals rematch against the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers, who had gone 11-0 in winning the Western Conference.

It had been one year earlier that the Pistons' struggle to get to the top hit its most painful setback, when they had held a 3-2 lead in the 1988 Finals. In Game 6 of that series, Thomas had been nothing short of heroic, suffering a badly sprained ankle early in the third quarter but still managing to pour in a Finals-record 25 of his game-high 43 points in the period. The Pistons fell by a single point, then lost Game 7 and the series.

So even when the Lakers lost starting guard Byron Scott to a hamstring injury before the 1989 rematch and even after Detroit took Game 1 to gain an early advantage, this time Thomas and the Pistons weren't letting off the gas pedal for even a second.

After all of the years and all of the disappointments along the way, the lessons had been learned.

"Now, finally, we understand the people we're playing and we understand their competitive nature and the way you have to respond to adversity," Thomas said then.

"Last year, we won Game 1, too. Last year, I heard all of that stuff about 'great game' in Game 6 and 'you were amazing.' But all I know is that we lost and I didn't want to hear any of it."

Through the long, rocky climb, the Pistons seemed to be on a quest to unlock the secrets that had been learned by the previous champions -- Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson.

"Nobody would tell me the secrets," Thomas said. "Especially not Magic."

In Game 2, it was Magic who went down, suffering his own hamstring injury early in the third quarter, and with Dumars pumping in 33 points, the Pistons came from behind for a 108-105 win.

With the series shifting to L.A., the Pistons continued to bludgeon the Lakers, using an explosion of 17 straight points in the third quarter of Game 3 to move to the threshold of the title.

James Worthy was brilliant with 40 points for the Lakers in Game 4, but by then the Pistons knew what to do. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made the final basket of his Hall of Fame career -- a bank shot -- with 96 seconds remaining, L.A. trailed by just 100-96. But Laimbeer knocked in a jumper with 28 seconds to go and the celebration began. Dumars, who averaged 27.3 points in the series, was named MVP of the Finals and the Pistons had the first championship in franchise history with a 4-0 sweep.

It was just the start. The Pistons would come back and win it all again the next season, beating Portland in the Finals.

They worked so hard at being Bad Boys. The truth is, they were just too good.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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