Despite the Detroit Pistons’ three NBA titles, their history is checkered with more heartbreaks and close calls than most teams in modern NBA history.
At various points over the past 25 years or so, if an ankle hadn’t turned or Hugh Evans swallowed his whistle or Rasheed Wallace hadn’t had a brain freeze at the worst possible time, the Pistons could have more rings. History would be written differently.
But how would the immediate future have been affected? Would eras come to a premature end or last a little longer? We all know about the events that stand out; the memories are permanently etched in everyone’s mind.
But turning points are a little more subtle, more understated. It sets things in motion, beginning a chain of events that lead to the inevitable climax. The road ends at those memorable–or painful moments.
So let’s examine the first “turning point”, thanks to a little help from the archival department at Palace Sports and Entertainment.
When: Game 3, 1990 Eastern Conference Finals
Where: Chicago Stadium, Chicago
Series: Detroit leads Chicago, 2-0
Most people remember the Pistons’ seven-game slugfest with the Chicago Bulls, and rightly so.
However, if the Pistons ever had a reason to be arrogant concerning their little brothers in the Midwest, the moments before Game 3 of that series was the apex.
Not only had the Pistons taken a 2-0 lead into the barn better known as Chicago Stadium, but counting the regular season, had won six in a row. Having met them in the playoffs the two previous years, the Pistons had taken 10 of 13.
Before tipoff, CBS commentator Hubie Brown said Pistons coach Chuck Daly stated his team had problems in two buildings, and the “Madhouse on Madison” was one of them. Then Brown, laughing, quickly added the Pistons won 9 of 11 there.
Pistons guards Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson were having their way against Michael Jordan, and his frustration showed after Game 2 in Auburn Hills. Dumars, in particular, was lighting Jordan up, totaling 58 points in the first two games.
Jordan kicked a chair in the locker room, gave his teammates more than a small piece of his mind and refused to talk to media in the days between Games 2 and 3. Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and the rest of the Bulls had come up small, intimidated by the Pistons’ physical play.
In short, the “Jordan Rules” were working, and first-year Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense wasn’t working against the Piston defense.
The Pistons had the Bulls rattled mentally and Isiah Thomas was due for a big game in his hometown, as he’d averaged only nine in the first two games. The champs were clicking on all cylinders.
“If they steal one of two here, they’re on their way again,” CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton.
The Bulls’ 5-0 home record in the playoffs entering that Saturday afternoon didn’t seem to bother the Pistons. While Jordan was feeding off the home crowd, Thomas seemed to be reinvigorated by the boos. He even pulled up for a 22-footer on a four-on-one fast break–and hit it. He finished with 36. He didn’t get much help, though. Dumars had his hands full with Jordan and Bill Laimbeer went scoreless for the first time in his playoff career.
Things seemed to be going well in the third quarter, though. The Pistons withstood Jordan–and subdued the Stadium crowd to the tune of a 69-55 lead in the third quarter. Then the Pistons let their foot off the pedal, and allowed the Bulls back into the game.
“The Pistons have been known to get a little arrogant or careless with big leads,” -Stockton
“Well, they play in peaks and valleys,”- Hubie Brown
Pippen scored 12 in the third and the lead was cut to one at quarter’s end. Then Jordan took over in the 4th with 18, shredding the Jordan rules on his way to 47 points. His shot-clock buzzer-beating three-pointer made Chicago Stadium literally shake and gave the Bulls an eight-point lead with a little over two minutes remaining.
Isiah wasn’t done, though and the Pistons clawed their way back. With Jordan hanging all over him, he hit his fourth triple of the day, and after forcing Pippen into a jumpball, the Pistons had a chance to tie with nine seconds left.
Mark Aguirre inbounded and immediately got it back from Johnson, unleashing a 26-footer from the right wing that went off the iron. Jordan rebounded and the Bulls found themselves back in the series. They won Game 4 and pushed it to seven, before the Pistons finish them off in easy fashion before beating Portland in five games for their second straight title.
The next season, the Bulls finally beat the Pistons in their fourth try, culminating in the Palace walk-off at the end of Game 4.
What if: If the Pistons take the Bulls seriously for 48 minutes, they likely steal Game 3, taking an insurmountable 3-0 lead and probably finish the series in 5 games, if not a sweep. Jordan, having lost to the Pistons in six games the season before in the conference finals, goes to management in frustration, asking for radical personnel changes across the board. Instead of staying the course that would lead to dethroning the Pistons, on the way to their first three-peat.
Allowing the series to go seven gave the Bulls confidence headed into the next season, and by the time the ’91 conference finals roll around, the Pistons’ tank was on empty. Isiah missed 34 games due to a broken hand and sprained his foot in the semifinals against the Celtics, never being at full strength against the Bulls. Dumars and Johnson were also fatigued, playing heavy minutes in Thomas’ absence.
Perhaps the Pistons meet the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals after beating the Philadelphia 76ers and old friend Rick Mahorn in the conference finals, then surviving in six games as Thomas gets healthy just as the Lakers’ Byron Scott and James Worthy nurse injuries.
Could the Pistons have been the first “three-peat” team of the modern era? We’ll never know, but Saturday, May 26, 1990 was indeed a turning point for the Pistons-Bulls rivalry. Only nobody knew.