What If: A turned ankle, a shocking whistle cost the Pistons a shot at 3 straight (maybe 4) NBA titles

Bill Laimbeer
Bill Laimbeer was called for a foul as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar attempted a shot with 14 seconds left and the Pistons leading by a point while up 3-2 in the 1988 NBA Finals
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the great “what if” moments in franchise history. Next up: What if Bill Laimbeer hadn’t been whistled for a foul with 14 seconds left and the Pistons leading Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals while holding a 3-2 lead in the series?)

For all the agony the Pistons had endured – and all the ferocity with which they fought through it – to get to Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals with a chance to clinch the franchise’s first title, they felt it was their destiny to clinch it on that sunny Sunday in Los Angeles.

That sense seemed validated when their driving force, Isiah Thomas, put on a spectacular third-quarter display, scoring 25 points to push the Pistons ahead by two entering the fourth quarter. That Thomas did it around a traumatic ankle injury which saw him limp off under assistance with 4:21 left in the quarter – only to return, still badly limping, with 3:36 to play and score the final 11 of those 25 points – only reinforced their sense of destiny.

The NBA and CBS, airing the Finals, seemed to think it was meant to be, too. They whisked Pistons owner Bill Davidson to the locker room, where the Larry O’Brien Trophy was delivered and the champagne was on ice. The Pistons led by three with a minute to play and still by a point when the Lakers inbounded the ball with 27 seconds remaining.

Dennis Rodman guarded Magic Johnson, who took the ball along the left sideline near the Lakers bench. James Worthy came across to screen for Johnson, prompting Rodman and John Salley to switch assignments, Salley taking Johnson as he crossed the lane left to right. Johnson passed to Byron Scott on the right wing against a shifting defense, giving Scott the opening he needed to dump the ball to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the right block with Bill Laimbeer defending.

Abdul-Jabbar feinted over his right shoulder to the middle, then pivoted to his left for the move everyone expected – the sky hook over his left shoulder along the baseline. Laimbeer raised his hands straight above his head less to contest Abdul-Jabbar’s shot – nobody was about to block the 7-foot-4 Hall of Famer’s patented move – than to show he wasn’t fouling him. And yet even as the ball was being released came the awful shriek of the whistle.

Laimbeer was slapped with his sixth foul, sending him to the bench – but, more critically, sending Abdul-Jabbar, a 72 percent career foul shooter, to the line for free throws with 14 seconds left to give the Lakers the lead. He made both under withering pressure. The Pistons’ ensuing possession, with Thomas’ right ankle swelling and stabbing him with pain, was a mess, Adrian Dantley bumping the hobbled Thomas to get it going. Eventually, Joe Dumars took a double-pump jump shot in the lane that missed and Rodman nearly grabbed the rebound but had it knocked loose.

With Thomas’ right ankle sporting a grapefruit-sized knot on it for Game 7, the Pistons gave it their best shot but lost 108-105 to lose the series. He played 28 minutes – somehow, some way on an ankle that took months to heal – but wasn’t himself, though he finished with 10 points, seven assists and four steals.

It came one year after their dispiriting Game 7 loss at Boston Garden in the Eastern Conference finals – on the heels of losing Game 5 there when, needing only to run out the clock, the Pistons instead saw Larry Bird steal Thomas’ inbounds pass and feed Dennis Johnson for a devastating game-winning layup.

Davidson never forgot those near misses.

“We have the game won,” Davidson told me in 2007, one year before his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame and two years before his death. “I’m sitting there in the locker room with David Stern, waiting to accept the trophy, and Hugh Evans – I’ll never forget the official – called the foul on Bill Laimbeer. It never should have been called – never been called in the history of the game. My thought was I’ll go to my grave and this is the only thing I’ll ever get.

“We should have won when the ball was thrown away, we should have won in Los Angeles, we should have won four in a row. But that’s history.”

Replays show as Abdul-Jabbar rose to launch his sky hook, Laimbeer thrust his chest out toward him. Whether he made anything beyond grazing contact is open to debate, but it didn’t appear to be anything close to significant enough to warrant a whistle – and especially not on a title-determining possession.

“Part of the game,” Laimbeer told reporters afterward when asked to comment on the foul. Pressed and asked if it was a good call, Laimbeer – true to form – stood his ground. “Part of the game. I’m not going to get into whether it was good or bad.”

“They made a good call,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

In 2014, Pat Riley – Lakers coach at the time of the ’88 and ’89 Finals against the Pistons – appeared to acknowledge the gift his team was granted.

“In 1988, when we got Detroit and Kareem hit that phantom sky hook foul, he had to make the two free throws,” Riley said, his use of the word “phantom” instructive.

There are really two “what if” moments to that game – what if Thomas hadn’t twisted his ankle and what if Evans hadn’t shockingly called a foul in a moment when the code forever has been to let players decide the outcome unless the infraction is incontrovertible.

The Pistons would recover from two straight years of horrendously bad luck to win back-to-back NBA titles amid the league’s golden era. They did it by overcoming the two lasting NBA dynasties, the Celtics and Lakers, led by the day’s transcendent stars, Johnson and Larry Bird, rightly credited with saving the league from irrelevance with their 1979 arrivals – all while holding off Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls over three straight playoff clashes.

Despite all of that, the Bad Boys get short shrift in history’s retelling of that era, overshadowed by Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls.

But what if they’d won three straight or – the sentiment their longtime owner took to his grave – what if they’d won four in a row?

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