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1988 NBA Finals against Lakers ranks as the greatest playoff series involving the Detroit Pistons since NBA-ABA merger

In an incredible feature that’s sure to suck you in, ESPN’s John Hollinger ranked the 50 greatest playoff series since the NBA-ABA merger. The Pistons appeared on the list six times:


10.  1988 NBA FINALS: PISTONS VS. LAKERS



Los Angeles Lakers

Detroit Pistons

4

3

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6 GAME 7
DET 105
LAL  93
DET 96
LAL 108
LAL 99
DET 86
LAL  86
DET 111
LAL  94
DET 104
DET 102
LAL  103
DET 105
LAL  108
Hollinger’s series rating: 17.7

Not only did this go seven games, but the last two were as good as you’ll ever see. The Pistons set the tone in Game 1 by surprising the favored Lakers, 105-93. But from there it took a little while for the drama to ramp up; each of the first five games ended with a double-digit margin.

However, the last two made up for it. While hopping up and down the court on a sprained ankle, Isiah Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 and nearly led Detroit to victory. The Pistons were up by three with a minute left, but L.A. hung on to win 103-102 after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s late free throws, a rushed Detroit miss, and a wild scene as Dennis Rodman and Byron Scott nearly came to blows just before the buzzer.

The seventh game was just as tight. After leading by as many as 15, the Lakers hung on to a three-point win (after rushing the court before the buzzer while the Pistons tried to get off a final shot), thanks in large part to 36 points, 16 boards and 10 assists from James Worthy — the only triple-double of the Finals MVP’s career.

Photo credit: MPS/US Presswire

 


14.  1988 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: PISTONS VS. CELTICS



Detroit Pistons

Boston Celtics

4

2

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6
DET 104
BOS 96
DET 115
BOS 119 (2OT)
BOS 94
DET 98
BOS 79
DET 78
DET 102
BOS 96 (OT)
BOS 90
DET 95
Hollinger’s series rating: 23.9

The Bad Boys finally got over the hump in this series and knocked off their Eastern Conference rivals, with the help of an unlikely rally from 16 points down in Game 5 in Boston to win in overtime, 102-96 — the second game to require an extra session. Prior to that point it looked like Boston would hold on again, as the Celtics held Detroit to 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 to steal a hard-fought 79-78 win in the Silverdome.

No game was decided by more than eight points, and things weren’t settled until Detroit’s Vinnie Johnson ignited a rally for a 95-90 Detroit win in Game 6. Celtics star Larry Bird, hampered in equal part by painful bone spurs and Detroit’s harassing defense, averaged only 10.0 points on 35.1 percent shooting for the series.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Peter Southwick


16.  2007 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: CAVS VS. PISTONS



Cleveland Cavaliers

Detroit Pistons

4

2

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6
CLE 76
DET 79
CLE 76
DET 79
DET 82
CLE 88
DET 87
CLE 91
CLE 109
DET 107 (2OT)
DET 82
CLE 98
Hollinger’s series rating: 16.1

This series is notable for one of the great individual performances in playoff history. LeBron James scored 25 straight points at the end of regulation and in the two overtimes to lead underdog Cleveland to a stunning Game 5 win in Detroit. The Pistons then melted down in Game 6 as the Cavs completed their rally from a 2-0 deficit.

This was a tight series throughout, with the first two games won by the Pistons by identical 79-76 scores and the first five decided by six points or fewer. And before his heroics, James was criticized for a decision to pass to Donyell Marshall rather than shoot it himself at the end of Game 1.

But that was all forgotten after his heroics in Game 5. James rallied Cleveland from a seven-point deficit with 3:15 to play and hit the game-winning lay-up with two seconds left in the second overtime to finish with 48 points.

Photo credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images


37.  2005 NBA FINALS: PISTONS VS. SPURS



San Antonio Spurs

Detroit Pistons

4

3

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6 GAME 7
DET 69
SAS 84
DET 76
SAS 97
SAS 79
DET 96
SAS  71
DET 102
SAS 96
DET 95 (OT)
DET 95
SAS 86
DET 74
SAS 81
Hollinger’s series rating: 13.2

This series loses style points because it did as much to turn off viewers as it did to invigorate them, but it featured the two top defensive teams of the era and the last three games were thrillers. Game 5 was the crucial one, decided on a Robert Horry 3-pointer in overtime, and then the Spurs rallied in the second half of Game 7 after it appeared Detroit might pull of the unprecedented feat of winning Games 6 and 7 on the road.

The problem with this series was that it was more for the purist than the fan. The Spurs and Pistons defended like gangbusters and shared the ball offensively, but the clash produced a series of defensive-minded games with few individual highlights. The other thing that hurts this series is the first four games — none of them were close.

Photo credit: Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images


41.  2006 EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS: CAVS VS. PISTONS



Detroit Pistons

Cleveland Cavaliers

4

3

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6 GAME 7
CLE  86
DET 113
CLE 91
DET 97
DET 77
CLE 86
DET 72
CLE 74
CLE 86
DET 84
DET 84
CLE 82
CLE 61
DET 79
Hollinger’s series rating: 11.0

In their first postseason appearance in eight years, the Cavs gave the 64-win Pistons all they could handle, winning the middle three games in stunning fashion. However, experience would eventually win out, as Detroit rallied to win Games 6 and 7 in the first of back-to-back playoff classics between the Central Division rivals.

Of particular note were Game 4, 5, and 6, each of which were decided by just two points. The second of the three, an 86-84 stunner by Cleveland on a game-winner by Drew Gooden that gave the Cavs a 3-2 series lead, left Detroit forward Antonio McDyess so stunned that he went straight home … in his uniform. But the Pistons eked out an 84-82 win in Cleveland when the Cavs couldn’t grab a defensive board in the final minute, then easily won Game 7.

Photo credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images


43.  2004 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: PISTONS VS. PACERS



Detroit Pistons

Indiana Pacers

4

2

GAME 1 GAME 2 GAME 3 GAME 4 GAME 5 GAME 6
DET 74
IND 78
DET 72
IND 67
IND 78
DET 85
IND 83
DET 68
DET 83
IND 65
IND 65
DET 69
Hollinger’s series rating: 10.0

Type "Pacers Pistons 2004" into a search engine and you’ll get a hundred pages about a brawl before you ever read about the playoffs. But six months prior to their unfortunate fight these two squared off in a classic defensive playoff matchup.

This series is a bit of a rarity, because its turning point and defining play — Tayshaun Prince’s out-of-nowhere rejection of Reggie Miller’s go-ahead layup attempt — came early, in Game 2. It was a symbolic moment for one of the most dominant defensive teams in history, and that, along with an amazing 18 more rejections that day, helped Detroit to a 72-67 win.

The Pistons would hold the Pacers to under 70 twice more, helping them win the lowest-scoring series in playoff history. But while it lacked in points, it didn’t lack in drama. Four of the six games were decided by five points or fewer, including Miller’s go-ahead 3 with 31 seconds left in Game 1 and a 69-65 brickfest in the clincher that turned when Ron Artest flagrantly fouled Richard Hamilton off the ball late in the fourth quarter.

Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I definitely thought Hollinger underrated the 2004 conference finals against the Pacers. That series was a war with both teams playing incredibly sound and tough defense.

Although I wouldn’t make a case that any of these series should’ve replaced another series on Hollinger’s list, I also thought the Pistons’ 1984 first-round loss to the Knicks, 1987 conference-finals loss to the Celtics and 2004 second-round win over the Nets could have received consideration.

7 Comments

  • Jun 8, 201111:51 am
    by Sean

    Reply

    Perhaps now that it is in the dustbin of history, the Pistons 2004 Finals matchup against the Lakers doesn’t rate, but at the time I remember it being a cornerstone. And I’m not just saying that as a Pistons fan. It put an exclamation point on the incredible defense being played in the league at that time, even necessitating rules changes from the league office the following season.
    It also was the definitive end of the Lakers dynasty — the last time Shaq and Kobe would suit up together after being begrudging co-leaders on previous championship teams. It was the last huh-rah of Gary Payton and Karl Malone in their quest for the ring and even featured a tiny mutiny as the old-guard champions of Lakers squads past lobbied for more playing time as they staved off elimination.
    It was the beginning of the question, “Do you need a true star to win a championship or can you win a ring by ‘playing the right way’?”
    Alas, that question has been answered emphatically since as we now have teams hording stars in packs of three as they hope to win a title. And the end of the Lakers was greatly exaggerated as a couple frustrating years for Kobe, which led to open trade demands, ended with him receiving a running mate in Pau Gasol that would net the team a couple more rings.

    • Jun 8, 20111:10 pm
      by tarsier

      Reply

      It was epic, but for being such an unexpected upset, not for being such a great series. The Pistons crushed the Lakers. Great story, not great basketball…at least not from both sides.

    • Jun 8, 20118:52 pm
      by Andrea

      Reply

      It was the beginning of the question, “Do you need a true star to win a championship or can you win a ring by ‘playing the right way’?”
       
      So, if you win with a true star on your team it means you’re not  “Playing the right way”? So winning with a superstar means “winning the wrong way”? GIVE ME A BREAK. I’m tired of this ridiculous rethoric fans of teams without a superstar use. Because I pretty much guarantee you that Pistons fans (and I’m one myself..only difference is I’m objective), if they had a true superstar on their team and won the title, wouldn’t be talking about their team winning the “wrong way”. FACT.
      Besides, also those teams with a superstar on their roster won by playing as a team: 2007 Spurs, 2008 C’s, 2009 and ’10 Lakers (yes, everybody on their team contributed to their title since it wasn’t just Kobe or Pau).
      I wonder if people even watch the games.
       
       
       
       

      • Jun 8, 201110:44 pm
        by tarsier

        Reply

        Saying you can win w/o a superstar by playing “the right way” does not imply that winning with a superstar means it was done “the wrong way.” It was just a rewording of saying “Is there a way to win w/o a superstar?” And the Pistons showed that there is. Any way that ultimately works is “the right way.” But it was widely believed that there wasn’t a way that would work devoid of a superstar.
        The only way anyone refers to as a “wrong way” was the formation of the Heat’s big three. And that is absurd. Any time three superstars are willing to sacrifice money, ego, and popularity to maximize their chances at winning–good for them. I want to see Dirk get a title. But I wouldn’t mind seeing the Heat be the first team since Russel’s Celtics to rattle off more than three championships in a row either. Unless of course Detroit can get back into contention.

  • Jun 8, 20111:27 pm
    by Jacob

    Reply

    Just look at the scores from series’ in the 2004-2006 range. It was amazing the defense that was being played in the NBA at the time. The alas the league had to change the rules to generate more fan interest. Maybe that was good for the NBA in the long run, but it was bad for the Pistons. Then again, when have the higher-ups in the league ever liked the way the Pistons (of multiple eras) play basketball?

  • Jun 8, 20111:38 pm
    by JoshB

    Reply

    I may have overlooked something, but I find it funny that none of Jordan’s Bulls playoff defeats made the list. Even if you don’t have the 90 series matchup with the Pistons, I would have expected to see the matchup with the Celtis on there.

  • Jun 8, 20118:45 pm
    by Andrea

    Reply

    There have been so many great series that it’s obvious several others didn’t make the cut. Otherwise you’d need a longer list than this one.
    To those ones talking about the amazing defense played in the mid-2000′s, as if they don’t play it anymore, you must’ve not watched this year or last years Finals, or even this year’s eastern conference finals for that matter (or, heck, even previous rounds): you can’t say they aren’t playing amazing defense right now, even with the new rules….this whole “new rules” complaining is just sour grapes since it didn’t stop defense-minded teams from winning.

    Speaking of the new rules. People act like those rules were put in place because of the Pistons..actually, the league came up with those rules in 2003 (they were suggested by a committee formed by former players like Jerry West and executives like Jerry Colangelo), which was before the Pistons even won the title in 2004, and were introduced only in 2005-06 because that was the first season under the new CBA (which was signed in June 2005)…so it’s not because the Pistons won as many fans mistakenly believe.
     
     

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