What a Game: Joe D’s bittersweet Sunday led a Game 3 momentum-changing win in ’90 Finals
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(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: A pivotal win on the road to back-to-back NBA championships.)
When the Pistons left The Palace for Portland in the 1990 NBA Finals with the series tied at a game apiece, the prevailing wish among their fans was that they could win one game on the road in the old 2-3-2 format and bring the series back home.
Even that seemed a daunting task. The Pistons, after all, had lost 20 straight games over 16 years at Portland.
Bill Laimbeer was having none of it. After the 106-105 overtime loss in Game 2 at The Palace, Laimbeer – wearing a black top hat that made him look like the cartoon villain portrayal he embraced – boldly declared the Pistons weren’t headed to Portland intent on winning one game but all three.
Portland went home supremely confident. The Trail Blazers were young, athletic and huge, led by scoring star Clyde Drexler – the Western Conference version of Michael Jordan – to go with the physical frontcourt of Jerome Kersey, veteran Buck Williams and mammoth Kevin Duckworth, orchestrated by point guard Terry Porter. Portland was perfect – 9-0 – at home in the 1990 playoffs headed into Game 3 at Memorial Coliseum.
The Pistons, meanwhile, were coming off of a grueling seven-game conference finals series against the real Jordan. They’d had only one day off between their Game 7 win over the Bulls and tipoff of the Finals and faced stiff injury challenges. Dennis Rodman had badly twisted his ankle in Game 4 of the conference finals and, in fact, would miss Game 3 at Portland. Joe Dumars was nursing a painful groin injury after chasing Jordan for seven games and then drawing the matchup with Drexler as his reward.
So Game 3 on June 10 looked like a long shot for the Pistons to snap their 20-game losing streak and inflict the first home playoff loss on Portland during its run to the Finals.
“We’re a proud team,” Pistons coach Chuck Daly said of the dire straits his team faced after losing Game 2, “and we’ve faced adversity before.”
The subplot to Game 3 that sunny Sunday afternoon was the death of Joe Dumars II, Joe D’s father, at 65 of complications from diabetes that had resulted in the amputation of both legs. As the parties had agreed to beforehand in the event his death would come on a game day, Dumars’ wife, Debbie, called Pistons public relations director Matt Dobek prior to tipoff to keep the news from Dumars until after the game.
Dumars went out and played one of his finest games ever with 33 points on 22 shots – he was a perfect 9 of 9 at the free-throw line – plus five assists. Dumars, Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson combined for 75 points and Daly’s bench, led by Johnson, outscored Portland’s 34-12. One of Dumars’ shots, a contested jumper from the foul line, seemed to scrape the ceiling of the arena before falling, as if guided by his father’s hand.
Fifteen years later, when I asked Dumars if he felt there was any mysticism at play on that bittersweet Sunday, he said, “Let me just remind you of something. When you’re talking to people from Louisiana, you can get mystical. That works. I mean, come on. It’s crazy how it worked out.
“And to take it a step further, when I got back to the hotel, I called my mother and I said, ‘I’ve got a plane to come home tomorrow’ – then-Pistons owner Bill Davidson had offered Dumars the use of his private jet for him to return for the funeral – “and she said, ‘No, no, don’t come home tomorrow. You guys are up 2-1. You play on Tuesday and you play on Thursday. Win (games) 4 and 5 and the series is over. Come home Friday, we’ll have the wake; Saturday, we’ll have the funeral.’
“We hadn’t won in (16 years) and now you’re going to win three straight there? Mystical? Yeah, you can get real mystical with that one.”
That, of course, is exactly what happened. The Pistons won Game 4 112-109 and took Game 5, erasing a seven-point Portland lead with 2:02 to play to win on Vinnie Johnson’s jump shot with seven-tenths of a second to play, earning “The Microwave” a second cool nickname: Mr. Double-Oh Seven.
“In our wildest beliefs,” Drexler said after the series, “we didn’t imagine we would lose three straight at home.”
“Any team that can beat us three times in our own building is a great one,” Blazers coach Rick Adelman said. “And that’s why the Pistons are champions.”