What a Game: A Boston breakthrough on the way to the first Pistons NBA Finals

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the greatest and most significant games in franchise history. Next up: Game 5 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals at Boston.)

Breakthroughs don’t have to come as a series of small steps, but that’s how the NBA worked in the ’80s amid the greatest era of dynasties in league history. The bicoastal twin titans of the league, the Celtics and Lakers, accounted for 26 of the 41 NBA championships won from inception through the 1987 season.

So when the Pistons and Celtics plowed through the first two rounds of the 1988 playoffs and were staring at a rematch of their epic seven-game ’87 conference finals, it’s no wonder the Celtics were perceived as the favorite in the minds of the public at large despite home-court advantage siding with the Pistons.

It stood to reason the Pistons would need to take full advantage of that home-court advantage, too, because they’d lost 21 straight games at venerable Boston Garden as the series opened. Even when the Pistons broke through, winning Game 1 on the road, fans remained disbelieving that the Celtics of Larry Bird – winners of three of the previous six NBA titles – were ultimately vulnerable.

Sure enough, the Celtics wrested home-court advantage back by grinding out a 79-78 Game 4 win at the Silverdome. The Pistons missed 20 straight shots at one point in the first half, fell behind by double digits and lost when a last-second Joe Dumars shot that could have been ruled goaltending was not. The series was sent back to Boston for a critical Game 5.

Things looked dire for the Pistons at halftime, the Celtics holding a 54-40 lead and Bird assaulting them with 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. Boston’s lead swelled to 16 early in the third quarter. It looked very much as if the Pistons were going to be forced to win a Game 6 at home and then return to Boston for the daunting task of winning a Game 7 – where the Garden ghosts bedeviled them the previous year – in the NBA’s most intimidating bandbox.

Isiah Thomas and the Pistons had other ideas.

“We knew if we could make a couple of shots, we could get back in the game,” he said. “We felt our defense was good enough to keep them from making shots they’re accustomed to making.”

Dennis Rodman took over the heavy lifting against Bird and forced him into contested shots. After his brilliant first half, Bird shot 4 of 15 with Rodman draped on him. Boston shot 25 percent after halftime.

“In the first half, we weren’t contesting every shot,” John Salley said. “In the second half, we concentrated. Even if we got there late, we made sure a hand was up. And we went after every rebound.”

Thomas took care of the offense pretty much on his own. Amid an era of some of the greatest players in NBA history, nobody could pack more brilliance into short bursts than him. He scored 29 of his 35 points after halftime, sparking a 19-2 run that saw the Pistons take a five-point lead into the fourth quarter.

“I said to myself, ‘If we are going to lose, I’m going down shooting,’ ” Thomas said after taking eight of his team’s last nine shots of the fourth quarter. “If I was going to lose, I was going to shoot us out or shoot us in.”

The Pistons’ big edge over the Celtics in general was their bench, but Chuck Daly leaned on his starters in Game 5, fully grasping the stakes – and the need to avoid Game 7 at all costs. Dumars played 50 minutes, Thomas 47, Bill Laimbeer 41. And yet Detroit’s bench still had far greater impact than Boston’s. Six Boston reserves played a total of 30 minutes, Fred Roberts leading them with 12. Roberts scored the only two points the Celtics got off of their bench on a total of four shots; Boston got zero rebounds or assists off of its bench. Rodman, meanwhile, gave the Pistons 10 points; Salley grabbed nine rebounds.

There was still work to be done, of course. The Pistons had lost their most recent game at the Silverdome, after all. But in front of 38,912 boisterous fans at the Silverdome – Salley called them “crazy carmakers” – on a Friday night that felt like a party, the Pistons held off Boston to win 95-90. The iconic moment of the night came in the final minute when Kevin McHale exited the court ahead of the final horn, stopping to engage Thomas and whispering in his ear, exhorting him in typically colorful language to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. As Thomas pointed out in “The Last Dance” – the ESPN 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan’s Bulls – it was a walk-off every bit as defiant as what the Pistons would do to Chicago three years later.

Winning their first title would require another stinging loss and another hard-earned step before their ultimate breakthrough, but a pivotal chapter in the legend of the Bad Boys was written on the first night of June 1988.