What If: When A.D. & ‘The Microwave’ banged heads, it took out the 2 players Celtics couldn’t stop in epic Pistons ’87 Game 7 loss
(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 Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson hadn’t collided while chasing a loose ball in Game 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals?)
By the time Game 7 of the ferociously contested 1987 Eastern Conference finals rolled around, it was clear that there were two Pistons players the Boston Celtics couldn’t contain: Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson.
So the Bad Boys would have been better off if literally any other two players banged heads in the final minute of the third quarter with the Pistons – losers of 17 straight games at Boston Garden at the time of the May 30 tipoff on a sweltering Saturday afternoon – leading by a point.
Instead, it was Dantley and Johnson diving to the floor for a loose ball, Dantley carted off on a stretcher and eventually to Massachusetts General Hospital and Johnson heading to the bench with an ice pack.
In games 4, 5 and 6 – two Pistons wins at the Silverdome and their excruciating Game 5 loss when the Boston Garden goblins, via Larry Bird, stole Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass with the Pistons up a point and only needing to run out the final five seconds – Dantley and Johnson were unstoppable. Dantley averaged 27 points and Johnson 23 off the bench.
The Celtics put their best perimeter defender, Dennis Johnson, on Dantley, an undersized small forward who always did his best work in the post to start Game 7 and came at him with frequent double teams to throw him out of rhythm. He’d still put up 18 points by the time the final minute of the third quarter rolled around.
Johnson had just hit a trademark line-drive jump shot on the previous possession and that meant Chuck Daly, of course, was going back to one of the best streak scorers in NBA history. Bill Laimbeer came to set a high screen for Johnson, who went left around it at the top of the circle. As he met resistance, the ball squirted loose down the left side of the lane. Johnson went after it and dived from the front while Dantley, stationed on the left wing, dived from a 90 degree angle to Johnson’s left.
“That definitely affected our offensive scheme and the way we had been used to playing,” Thomas said on a recent NBA TV “Film Room” segment. “We knew if we could get to the last five, six minutes it would be a half-court battle.”
And Dantley at that time was the fulcrum of their half-court offense. This was before the NBA had any such thing as a “concussion protocol” and also before teams routinely traveled with their own medical staff. So Dantley’s fate, once he was wheeled to an examination room in the stuffy Garden, was in the hands of Celtics team doctors.
“Our team doctor couldn’t have slow walked this any more,” Kevin McHale said on “Film Room.” “They took him to the room, gave him more checkups. ‘You can’t go out yet. We better check this; we better check that.’ He might still be there if the game was still going on. Our team doctor did what he was supposed to do – not let the guy come back on the floor.”
Johnson, unlike Dantley, would eventually return but score only one more basket early in the fourth quarter before showing effects from the head-to-head collision and sitting out the last 7:21. After getting 50 points a game from Dantley and Johnson over the past three games, the Pistons got 28 in that critical Game 7.
The Pistons didn’t go quietly, taking the game to the final minute – although everybody agreed that the momentum-changing possession came a few minutes earlier after a Joe Dumars follow-up jump shot with 4:17 left tied the game at 99.
Boston took 1:11 off the clock on a next possession that encompassed five missed shots and five offensive rebounds. Danny Ainge missed a 3-pointer to start it off, Larry Bird grabbing the first miss. That set up a Bird triple 14 seconds later, rebounded by Kevin McHale. The Celtics used almost the full shot clock next with Bird again missing a deep two this time and McHale again getting a deep rebound, then quickly taking a jump shot from near the foul line. Robert Parish grabbed the rebound under the rim but his follow attempt was blocked by Dennis Rodman, in for the injured Dantley. Bird recovered the ball off the block and the Celtics again worked the shot clock.
Bird eventually got the ball to the left of the top of the circle and pump faked John Salley off his feet, forcing Dumars to sag off of Ainge on the left wing and cut off Bird’s penetration. Bird fed Ainge for a dagger 3-pointer to put Boston ahead 102-99 with 3:06 to play.
“I think what the Celtics knew that we didn’t at the time, they understood that this was the big moment in the game,” Thomas said. “They raised their intensity level, not in terms of making shots but getting every loose ball, coming up with every rebound and figuring out a way to will themselves to this victory. If they don’t score I think we go down and score and we win the basketball game. I think that’s the biggest play and the biggest shot of the series.”
The Pistons stayed in it with big shots from Thomas and Dumars, who scored a then career-best 35 points to end his second season, and were within a point with 45 seconds left. But Bird again found Ainge, after forcing a double team, for a deep two with 25 seconds left, allowing Boston to hold on for the win.
“That’s the difference,” Thomas said. “You see Boston able to draw a double team with Bird where we used to be able to draw a double team with Dantley and you can get those kind of shots. Boston in the last minute was able to get exactly what they wanted. Not having Dantley on the floor with us, we weren’t able to get the type of shot we would normally get in the last part of the game.”
The Pistons vowed after that game – after two heart-wrenching road losses to end the season – to come back and win home-court advantage the following season. And that’s exactly what they did. But they’ll always wonder if their first NBA Finals appearance would have come a season earlier if the two players the Celtics couldn’t stop didn’t bang heads amid the cauldron of Game 7.
“They taught us how to win,” Thomas said of the ’80s Celtics. “They taught us how to be champions in these moments. They were that great of a basketball team.”