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The last chance: revisiting Game 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Pistons

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Thirty-three years later, Isiah Thomas is still in denial.

Larry Bird in Playoff Action Against the Detroit Pistons

With the pandemic cancelling all pro sports, NBA TV broadcasted a mid-April show called “Film Room” featuring replays of several classic 1980’s games. The Celtics, Lakers, and Pistons are the main teams featured in this throwback series, with live commentary by former foes in the game as they look back in time.

Two of the games depicted were Boston losing in Game 6 of both The 1985 NBA Finals and 1988 Eastern Conference Finals. The one I have seen shows the Celtics actually winning was Game 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Detroit. Even then, the broadcast was so one-sided and detracted from Boston’s epic win. That irked me.

When I have writer’s block, I can usually count on an announcer to make dumb or wrong comments that I feel the need to address and correct. This NBA TV show thus inspired me once again.

NBA TV analysts Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas represented their respective teams on the show wearing headsets while commentating from home on the side of the screen. Continuing the theme of double-teaming the unstoppable Celtic post man (and doubling up on Boston), the show also added former Piston bruiser Rick Mahorn and occasional NBA TV analyst to the show.

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons
Despite playing with a broken navicular bone in his foot, Celtic Hall of Famer Kevin McHale does a good job of defending a long shot by star Piston guard Isiah Thomas. McHale made first team All-NBA in 1986-87, and was also a first team All-Defense selection that season. He finished fourth in the MVP voting that year, and would have finished higher without the injury.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Host Matt Winer showed a little bias toward the Pistons in his commentary by giving the incredibly verbose and repetitive Thomas much more air time than McHale. I also think Isiah tended to over talk partly to take away some of the valuable air time that would have been better used to analyze his questionable late-game actions.

I also sensed a slight anti-Boston bias in the TV Guide information about the show as it said, “Isiah and McHale” provide commentary. Not “Kevin and Isiah” or “Thomas and McHale,” but “Isiah” and “McHale.” A minor point, yet a telling one.

My main gripes with the otherwise good and clever show concept follow below. Although I admit any show that displays the great offensive execution that existed back then is a good thing, constant errors irritate me and make it sometimes hard to stomach.

Very notably, there was way too much attention given to the Adrian Dantley/Vinnie Johnson late third-period collision as a decisive role in the Game 7 outcome. Boston triumphed 117-114 in a finish that was not quite as close as the final score indicates due to a meaningless last-second Piston triple and two head-scratching fouls - one intentional - committed by Dennis Johnson.

Detroit Pistons vs. Boston Celtics
Larry Bird defends against two-time NBA scoring champ and Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley. An underrated defender, Bird made three All-Defense second teams when it was voted on by the league coaches. He used quick hands, smarts and anticipation to become a master at swiping the ball away from behind players who mistakenly thought they had gotten by him.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

First, Dantley had already played 31 minutes and scored 18 points so it was not as if it happened early in the contest. He had a big impact on the game and averaged 34.4 minutes per game in the series, and was often on the bench at the end of playoff games for defensive purposes anyway.

Reserve guard “Microwave” Johnson, generously nicknamed by Danny Ainge after his 22-point fourth period outburst in Game 4 of the 1985 ECF vs. Boston, stayed on the bench. Vinnie ended up playing 22 minutes (he averaged 24.7 mpg in the series), scoring 10 points. However, Thomas pointed out over and over that the Pistons missed Dantley down the stretch for his ability to draw double teams and give Detroit much-needed low post offense.

True, but the show failed to point out the historic amount of injuries Boston was playing with, and that many of their key players that had not even played in the series. Center Robert Parish had sprained both ankles in the previous 16 playoff games, yet was gamely pushing on after missing Game 6 in Detroit.

McHale was heroically playing with a broken navicular bone in his foot, an injury doctors and Bird advised him against playing. He also had a sprained ankle on his other foot and had battled through flu earlier in the post-season, causing him to lose weight. McHale would go on to have foot surgery after the 1987 playoffs and missed the first 21 games of the 1987-88 season. He still limps to this day because of playing through that injury.

The 1985-86 Sixth Man of the Year Bill Walton played just 10 games in the 1986-87 season due to many injuries to his foot and hand. The Celtics energizer played exactly one scoreless minute in the entire Pistons series. One.

Seventh man/swingman sharpshooter Scott Wedman, a two-time All-Star with the Kings, missed the entire playoffs with an injured heel that caused his retirement the next season.

Starting guard Danny Ainge completely missed the first three games of the Detroit series with a sprained knee suffered in the Game 7 win over Milwaukee in the semifinals.

Valuable third guard Jerry Sichting was plagued by a mysterious stomach ailment much of the season and playoffs. Underrated fourth guard Rick Carlisle, a heady passer and shooter, was also on the disabled list.

Larry Bird was en route to grinding through the most playoff minutes in NBA history that post-season. He gutted 1,015 minutes out in 23 pressure-packed games for the defending champion Celtics, staring down about every challenge imaginable on and off the court. Bird was also dealing with back troubles, double Achilles issues, and a 17-pound late-season weight loss down the stretch as he lived on a 7-Up and popcorn diet in order to get quicker.

Boston’s starting lineup at the time averaged 31 years of age, with only Ainge under 30. Plus, the Celtics had gone deep into the playoffs eight years in a row (making the Finals five times and the conference finals seven), severely shortening their off-season recovery time and increasing their workload each year. Detroit’s starting lineup was 27, with Dantley the elder statesman at 31, and two of their top three reserves were rookies.

In addition, the older Celtics were playing their 14th grinding game in 26 days against two straight tough foes (Milwaukee and Detroit) amid a very hot spring. The games in the 60-year old Boston Garden were all played without air conditioning as well.

The much younger and healthy Pistons had swept Washington 3-0 in the first round, then took out Atlanta 4-1 in the second round. Thus, despite Boston being the top seed, Detroit was much better rested than the elder, banged-up Celtics.

Boston Celtics Vs Detroit Pistons
Frustrated Celtic sixth man Bill Walton argues a call at the Silverdome as teammates Larry Bird and Jerry Sichting look on. Due to foot and finger injuries, Walton played just 22 out of a possible 105 regular season and playoff games in the 1986-87 campaign. The previous season he played 98 of 100 games, was voted Sixth Man of the Year and helped Boston win its 16th NBA title.
Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

But back then and again on NBA TV, there were no excuses made for Boston due to what I call “Green-is envy.” They had just won too much; casual fans and Celtic haters tended to root for their opposition because Boston always got their best shot.

The Dantley-Johnson collision was repeatedly used as an excuse by Thomas and, to a lesser extent, by Mahorn as a reason Detroit lost Game 7. No one mentioned that the two players willingly and recklessly dove into one another. Several years ago, I got into an online argument with a Detroit fan who swore up and down that McHale had pushed the two Pistons together and caused the incident. Once I convinced his faulty, revisionist bias to look at the film, he finally was convinced the two extremely thickly-muscled players were not even touched by anyone else as they dove for a loose ball and cracked heads.

I have never in my life of covering and playing basketball seen two players on the same team collide like that diving for a loose ball. My take is that part of the reason it happened, other than just being a random act of bad luck for Detroit, is that because the Pistons were so incredibly over aggressive as a team, they were far more likely to be involved in such an injurious event. A team that played with such all-out reckless abandon, especially on defense, is much more inclined to suffer such basketball bad luck. Sure it was a bad break, but it was self-inflicted AND a drop in the bucket compared to the awful luck and injuries Boston had been playing with the entire season and playoffs. Remember, top pick Len Bias had also died shortly after being drafted by Boston before that season.

For what it’s worth, Thomas famously disliked playing with Dantley because of his ball-stopping, isolationist offensive style. The story also goes that Thomas helped orchestrate the trade of Dantley to Dallas the next season for Isiah’s Chicago buddy, Mark Aguirre.

The first time Dallas and Detroit played after the trade, Dantley called Thomas over during warm-ups and whispered in his ear that he would never forgive Isiah for the trade which cost him a ring or two. So there was no love lost there.

In a CBS interview with Tom Heinsohn before a 1986 game vs. Boston, Thomas said that Detroit “can not beat Boston in talent...to win we need to have luck.” When Heinsohn asked him what sort of luck he meant, Isiah answered “one of their players getting injured” then laughed. Isiah’s tendency to play fast and loose with the truth was apparent many other times and even later in this very NBA TV show.

Thomas and Mahorn then also repeatedly noted that without Dantley the team was playing with a lineup they weren’t used to using and “NEVER practiced with.” Thomas kept saying that Detroit was using its “second unit” even though its top three reserves were basically semi-starters.

This exaggeration was an even more ridiculous assertion considering the Pistons were playing often with three starters on the floor: himself and backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, as well as Mahorn or Laimbeer. Rookie reserves Salley and Rodman were defensive demons who were often on the court at the end of games depending on what lineup Pistons coach Chuck Daly chose to employ. And if Detroit never practiced with such a lineup at the end of games, whose fault is that?

Over 100 games and even more practices in the uber-long NBA season, it is hard for me to imagine that this unit “never” played together, especially for such an accomplished coach as Daly. Chuck was highly successful as a coach in the high school and college ranks before making it to the NBA. More self-aggrandizing exaggeration by Isiah.

Thomas was not only flat-out wrong about his comments (erroneous ones he made over and over without being corrected by Winer), he was trying to elicit sympathy over the loss of Dantley. And this was done without noting that replacement Rodman was an infinitely better defender and rebounder than the one-dimensional Dantley. Psychologists will tell you that knowingly (and consistently) exaggerating and lying to garner sympathy are hallmarks of a socoiopath, or at the very least, of a non-accountable person.

Mahorn also went out of his way to point out a non-foul he made against Parish on a dunk. While he appeared to be right on this particular call, Mahorn was such a dirty and physical player, he probably committed 20-25 fouls a game at least that were not called.

As Bird would later note, too, under the rules of the time, Detroit and Mahorn were known for taking “double fouls,” meaning that after the whistle blew on one of their hard fouls, the same fouler or another Piston would pile on and give the opposing foulee an extra hit, bump, or chuck without any extra penalty being assessed.

Bird was clearly fouled shortly after the Mahorn bad call, yet none was called. Then when Thomas drove baseline and Bird came over to help out cleanly with arms extended straight in the air, Isiah rammed his leading elbows right into Larry’s face and mouth, yet drew a two-shot foul.

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics
Isiah Thomas, wearing 42 instead of his customary number 11, meets a familiar roadblock in nemesis Larry Bird. Larry’s epic steal (and assist) of a floating Thomas in-bounds pass in the final seconds of game 5 in the 1987 Eastern Finals gave Boston a one-point win and a 3-2 lead in one of the fiercest series in playoff annals. Boston and Detroit split four playoff meetings from 1985-91 featuring the two superstars.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

An angry Bird jawed at the refs for the bad call as Thomas went to the line to no avail. The clearly intentional cheap shot by Thomas was not mentioned on the NBA TV show either.

Then the calculating Isiah started setting things up to cover a later hit he leveled on a defense-less Ainge. By way of a preemptive strike, knowing what was coming, he started talking about how he tried to “shoot the gap” for a steal in the final seconds with Detroit about to lose and that he “accidentally” ran into Danny.

The film shows clearly that as Ainge had his backed turned to Thomas near the midcourt sideline, the Piston guard ran hard in a straight line for about 15 feet and blindsided Danny with a vicious cheap shot.

As Ainge limped away before canning the clutch, series-clinching free throws, an unrepentant Thomas simply walked off the floor to the bench as he had fouled out. Unable to accept defeat, he simply removed himself from the game with the cheap shot in a double display of poor sportsmanship and pouting. Today, it would be a flagrant-2 foul at the very least, with two shots and possession sealing the verdict.

Even Mahorn pointed out that the Jack Tatum-like hit against Ainge looked intentional, saying “I know you” to Thomas as he laughed knowingly. Rick asked Isiah if the shot was “revenge” for Ainge grabbing him to stop a fast break earlier in the fourth quarter, a ploy both said on the NBA TV show was a good, smart foul common in European basketball.

At the time, a very angry Thomas balled up his fists as if to slug Ainge while Danny ducked a punch that never came. And of course, Thomas did not answer Mahorn’s question because he obviously gave Ainge a cheap shot on purpose.

Thomas did mention that the Pistons learned a lot about becoming a champion from playing a great team like Boston in the playoffs over the years. He correctly pointed out that the EPIC Celtic five-offensive rebound possession in the fourth quarter that took over a minute and culminated in Ainge swishing a left wing triple was the play of the game.

“I think that was the biggest shot and biggest play of the series,” said Thomas, over 30 years later. “If they miss that three and we go down and score, I think we win the series.”

Of course Thomas also made the comment to downplay the effect of his HISTORIC turnover with Detroit up one at the very end of Game 5 when Bird miraculously stole his in-bounds pass and fed an assist to Dennis Johnson. DJ scored with a second left to give Boston a pivotal one-point win and a key 3-2 lead in the series.

Clearly that steal was the biggest of the series, one of the greatest late-game plays in NBA history. Yet Thomas ignored that epic steal because he was the one who made the ill-fated, hurried pass even though Daly was frantically calling for timeout at the other end of the court.

Years later on another NBA TV show, Thomas claimed--with McHale present--that Bird shot him a smirk and laugh after the steal. Yet careful examination of the film shows that Bird and Thomas never even came close to one another, let alone face to face, after the steal or the game as they went to the Garden tunnel. Just another fib and revisionist history untruth uttered to gain sympathy.

Bird banked in a crucial LEFT-handed 12-footer late in Game 7 and that ridiculous shot was barely mentioned. In obvious tongue-in-cheek undertstatement, McHale offered the Bird was “not bad” as Mahorn smiled and the normally verbose Thomas was mum.

Watching across the country in Los Angeles, Earvin Johnson said the Lakers fell off their couch at the audacity of taking and making such a difficult shot at the end of an extremely close and rugged seventh game.

Years later Thomas replaced Bird as the Indiana Pacers’ head coach. Thomas never won a playoff series despite inheriting a talented team that had gone to the Finals the spring before in 2000, Larry’s last season on the sidelines. When Bird came back to the Pacers in 2003 as GM, one of his first acts was to fire Thomas as head coach and install Rick Carlisle, a much better coach, as his replacement.

Isiah also struggled mightily as a coach and GM with the Knicks, Pacers, and Raptors. As commissioner of the CBA, he ran that minor league into bankruptcy, costing numerous people on and off the court their jobs. He faced a sexual harassment lawsuit with the Knicks while losing big and constructing a hot mess roster full of guards reminiscent of himself.

For over 20 years, he and former buddy Johnson were actually estranged despite putting on a phony public facade of best friendship. This happened after Thomas fueled rumors of Johnson being homosexual after his 1991 HIV diagnosis.

The 6’1 Thomas once grumbled that if his more popular 1980’s foils Bird, Johnson, and Michael Jordan were his size, “they would not even rate.” Thomas was outrageously talented and skilled, and there probably is some truth in that statement. But Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, and countless other unnamed NBA greats would never have sniffed the pros either had they been 6’6, let alone 6’1. His former buddy Johnson benefited greatly from the biggest height and weight advantage in NBA history at point guard, while Bird generally faced off against people near his size.

Isiah also erroneously claimed that he beat his major foils more than they defeated him. Yes, his Pistons held a 3-1 playoff series edge over Jordan and the Bulls from 1988-91, and Detroit was 1-1 in the Finals vs. Johnson and LA. But the Pistons were 2-2 vs. Boston in the playoffs WITH Bird, losing in 1985 and 1987 before winning in 1988 and 1991. He was also conveniently - and disingenuously - counting the Detroit 1989 first round sweep of Boston - BUT that was accomplished with Bird sidelined by double Achilles surgery.

Ironically, it was a torn Achilles suffered by Thomas in 1994 that ended his career amid rumors he would be dealt to the Knicks and Pat Riley to help New York win their elusive first title since 1973. Instead they settled for fading veteran Derek Harper and came up short in seven games to Houston in the Finals. Had they acquired a healthy Thomas, chances are the Knicks would have won it all.

Bird rebounded from his injuries to win Comeback Player of the Year in 1989-90, and played three more years despite constant back pain. Even Thomas has admitted that Bird was the toughest of the four 1980’s superstars, saying that if you put Larry, himself, Johnson and Jordan in a room together for a presumed battle royale that Bird would be the one who emerged.

Thomas has also disingenuously defended the infamous Pistons walkoff at the end of the four game sweep by Chicago in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, a loss which ended their reign as three-time Eastern Conference rulers and two-time NBA champs. The unapologetic, self-proclaimed “Bad Boy” Pistons refused to shake hands with Chicago after parading right by their bench to their home locker room at the Palace. Yet Thomas had the audacity to defend it and deflect criticism by claiming that Boston did the same thing to them in 1988 when the Pistons finally got past the Celtics after winning Game 6 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals.

The huge difference was that ON THE ROAD, the Celtic starters left the Silverdome court with a little time left to avoid being swarmed and possibly hurt by the delirious crowd of 38,912 fans, most of whom were rabid Piston rooters.

Furthermore, this was a Friday night game televised nationally by CBS, and many in the huge throng, ravenous for Celtic blood, were obviously inebriated and extremely rowdy, crowding the floor for the ensuing on-court rush that took place. Detroit had turned the playoffs into a WWE atmosphere in 1987 and 1988 with unabashed, unprecedented dirty play that incited raucous and huge crowds, and the Silverdome had become a dangerous situation.

To his credit, McHale, as he walked across the court to the locker room, sportingly shook hands with an admiring Thomas and Johnson. Thomas and McHale had been teammates for the 1979 U.S. Pan American team under Bob Knight in Puerto Rico, and had also faced off in the Big Ten at Minnesota and Indiana for one season in 1980, and were thus friendly rivals.

All of these issues certainly helped keep an increasingly unpopular Thomas off the roster of the original Dream Team, led by Bird, Jordan, and Johnson, in the 1992 Olympics. And this in spite of the fact that Daly was the head coach. Or perhaps Chuck secretly did not want Isiah on the team anyway, knowing it would cause unnecessary problems for a team destined to cruise to the gold medal. Maybe it was also payback for not calling the timeout at the end of Game 5 in the 1987 ECF, ignoring his call for a timeout (a crestfallen but defiant Thomas afterward said he did not see “no one calling for timeout”).

The trend of non-accountability over time has dogged and encouraged Isiah to push the envelope further and further, because he got away with it over and over with a wink and a smile on his once-angelic looking, youthful face.

Since he was a truly great and flashy player popular with fans, he was also able to get away with more transgressions than an ordinary player or a non-NBAer. He big-timed people and schmoozed them with his laugh and childlike demeanor, combined with spectacular talent and skill level.

Detroit Pistons vs. Boston Celtics
The three principal players in arguably the greatest steal ever authored in NBA history at the very end of game 5 in the 1987 ECF. Isiah Thomas threw the ill-fated pass that Larry Bird stole by racing in front of Bill Laimbeer. Tiptoeing along the left baseline, Bird then calmly dished to a cutting Dennis Johnson, and the clutch DJ sank the game-winning layup with one second left. Thomas later described Bird as a “streak of lightning” on the legendary steal.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Truth is, at the time of the 1987 loss, a great player like Isiah was not used to getting beaten and could not understand or accept it. Great players usually have massive egos and are typically stubborn that way. For although he was a very smart player, he did not understand the depth and layers of Bird’s transcendent game. A much more mature Larry just operated on a higher plane of consciousness and skill that Thomas, who despite his top flight passing skills was a great dribbler and one on one player at heart, could not comprehend.

He had not yet understood that a great individual player is even greater when he learns how to make everyone around him better, a rare skill a more humbled Bird had long ago mastered. And 33 years later on NBA TV, Thomas was still making excuses and lying.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.