What a Game: Course of Detroit Pistons history changed on a night punctuated by 90 brilliant seconds from Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation to force overtime in a deciding Game 5 of their series with the Knicks
Dick Raphael (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic look at some of the best and most significant games in franchise history. Next up: A flash of utter brilliance from Isiah Thomas amid a playoff game that changed the course of Pistons history.)

Even if it hadn’t been punctuated by the most brilliant extended burst of individual basketball in Pistons lore, the night of April 27, 1984 would have registered as significant to the franchise’s history.

It featured a deciding Game 5 in their first-round playoff series with the Knicks, for starters, before an overflow crowd – hosted by the Pistons but not at their home of the past six seasons, the Pontiac Silverdome. Instead, they played at the home of hockey’s Red Wings, Joe Louis Arena.

And because of that – because the Silverdome’s executive committee, in its infinite wisdom, had rented out the building to a tractor pull – the seeds were planted on that unseasonably warm spring evening for the Pistons to build their own arena and leave the cavernous Silverdome to football’s Lions.

The Pistons had won 49 games under first-year coach Chuck Daly in 1983-84, good enough for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage against the 47-win New York Knicks, led by high-scoring Bernard King.

But the Pistons squandered home-court advantage in a 94-93 Game 1 loss at the Silverdome and after losing Game 3 at New York, needed a Game 4 road win to extend the series. They got it, overcoming King’s 41-point outburst by placing seven players in double figures in a 119-112 win to bring the series back home – well, back to Detroit, at least.

As much as King bedeviled the Pistons – he averaged an eye-popping 42.6 points, his 213 points an NBA record for a five-game series – Isiah Thomas gave it right back to the Knicks in equal doses. That Game 4 win came with Thomas not only scoring 22 points, but dishing out 16 assists to go with seven rebounds and a blocked shot.

“He had one of those magic games where he was in control and had complete concentration,” Daly said. “When he’s concentrating like that, he’s one of the greatest players in the league.”

King was New York’s small forward, but so overwhelmed Pistons counterpart Kelly Tripucka that Daly used almost everybody but Tripucka to guard him as the series unfolded. In that Game 4 win, Kent Benson, Earl Cureton, Cliff Levingston and John Long took turns suffering King’s abuse with the Pistons routinely doubling and tripling King to get the ball out of his hands.

The fact the Pistons were playing in Detroit – the first time the Pistons had played downtown since abandoning Cobo Arena for the suburbs after the 1977-78 season – was nearly as much of a story as the fact they were about to play to move on to the second round. But the Knicks were pleased to be playing somewhere other than the opposition’s familiar home.

“Joe Louis Arena doesn’t mean anything to anybody,” Knicks coach Hubie Brown said. “This will be the first time both teams will play there. We’ll both have to learn the bounces.”

The game was tight throughout – the Pistons led by five after a quarter and by two at halftime, then fell behind by six after three quarters – but the Knicks led by eight with under two minutes to play when Thomas began an out-of-body experience. In the game’s final 1:34 – and, actually, within a 65-second span of that slice of the game – Thomas scored a remarkable 16 points. He capped it with a 3-pointer to tie the game at the 23-second mark.

The Pistons had a shot to win it in regulation, forcing an inbounds violation after Thomas’ tying triple, but Darrell Walker’s steal as Thomas milked the clock for a last-second winner led to overtime. Thomas fouled out and the Knicks, amid the late-April swelter and a frantic crowd, hung on for a 127-123 win.

“Too bad somebody had to lose,” Knicks point guard Rory Sparrow said, acknowledging the brilliance of Thomas. “God put a hand on him.”

For the Pistons, the game was a revelation for what it spoke to them about the virtues of playing basketball in an arena as opposed to a stadium.

“When I got into Joe Louis, the atmosphere was electric,” Thomas said in Eli Zaret’s book, “Blue Collar Blueprint.” “It was awesome. You can’t describe it – it made you just want to get off. I just felt like I could do anything.”

“It turned out to be the best game I’d ever seen,” said Tom Wilson, president of the Pistons for most of the era of Bill Davidson’s tenure as owner. “It was electric. Twenty-thousand-plus people, 95 degrees in there, no air conditioning, but it was electric. It was spectacular.”

The Pistons had another, more prolonged stint at Joe Louis Arena the following season when an ice storm and howling winds tore the roof off of the Silverdome. Near-sighted bargaining tactics by Silverdome administrators – balking at hiring a few extra security guards or concessions workers on nights ticket promotions would attract 30,000 or more fans despite the fact that parking and concessions went to the Silverdome, not to the Pistons – helped push Davidson to further explore building a basketball home for his team.

Ultimately, they broke ground a few miles up Interstate 75 from the Silverdome at the site of what became The Palace of Auburn Hills in March 1986. Less than two years after Isiah Thomas and the Pistons reminded all what a charged atmosphere in a basketball arena could feel like, the Pistons were on to the next chapter of their story in Detroit – and one that would take the franchise to its highest peaks yet.

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