Bad Boy Repeat: The 1990 Detroit Pistons Make It Two Straight

The Detroit Pistons had completed their breakthrough of the Showtime Lakers and the Bird Celtics with a championship in 1989. If Detroit glanced in the rearview mirror they could see the Jordan Bulls gaining steam, but the 1990 Detroit Pistons held off all challengers and won a second straight NBA title.

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With the backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, the defensive and rebounding presence of Dennis Rodman, along with Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Mark Aguirre, and topped off with super sixth man Vinnie Johnson, the Pistons won 59 games and held the top seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs began.

Detroit cruised through the first two rounds, going a combined 7-1 (the first round was best-of-five) against the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks. Awaiting them in the conference finals, just as had been the case a year ago, was Michael and the Bulls.

The Pistons defended Jordan better than anyone in those days, mastering the concept of making the game’s best player see a “wall” of defenders rotated towards him. Michael was still unstoppable, averaging 32 ppg in the series and shooting 46 percent, in an era where defenses were allowed to be much more physical than is the case today.

But one great player doesn’t trump a team, and Detroit was deep, well-balanced and well-coached, under the leadership of Chuck Daly, who would end up coaching the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” in Barcelona two years later. The teams split the first six games, the home team winning each time and set up a Game 7 for a Sunday afternoon back in The Palace.

Jordan’s key sidekick, Scottie Pippen, had a migraine on the morning of the game. Detroit was favored in either case and Pippen had struggled in Game 5 in Detroit, but his 1-for-10 struggle made the result anti-climactic. Detroit won 93-74 and rolled into the NBA Finals for the third straight season.

Even though the Los Angeles Lakers, behind an MVP year from Magic Johnson, won 63 games, were the top seed in the first year of the post-Kareem Abdul Jabbar era, the Lakers would prove to be a playoff flameout. They were stunned in the second round by the Phoenix Suns, and the door opened for a rising team in Portland, led by Clyde Drexler. The Trail Blazers displaced the Lakers and won the Western Conference title.

When Portland stole Game 2 on Detroit’s home floor with a one-point win, it introduced a brief element of doubt about whether the Pistons would repeat. But Detroit quickly reassumed control with a 121-106 win in Game 3. Each of the next two games went down to the final seconds. Portland reserve Danny Young hit a 35-foot shot that appeared to tie Game 4 at the buzzer, but it was waved off as coming after the buzzer.

It looked like Portland would at least give the home fans a win in Game 5 when they led 90-83 with two minutes to play. But Detroit put on one last rally, with Johnson heating up and ultimately hitting the game-winning shot in a 92-90 win. Thomas averaged 28 ppg and seven assists per game and was named Finals MVP, as the 1990 Detroit Pistons completed their repeat run.