They were “The Bad Boys”, the rough and tough two-time defending NBA champions. The 1991 Detroit Pistons were as deep as ever, with eight players making significant contributions and future Dream Team coach Chuck Daly masterminding it all. But the combination of a small does of injury problems and a big dose of Michael Jordan served to bring an end to the Bad Boy Era in Detroit.
Isiah Thomas was the team leader and he averaged 16 points/9 assists per game from the point guard spot, but injuries limited him to 46 games in the regular season. Joe Dumars, his running mate at the two-guard spot knocked down 20 a night and was good for five assists. Vinnie Johnson came off the bench to score 12ppg at age 34 and complete the guard rotation that had kept the Pistons in the NBA elite since 1987.
The frontcourt had five more quality players. Bill Laimbeer was 33-years-old, but still gave 11 points/9 rebounds per game and could stretch the floor with his long-range jump shot. James Edwards was 35, but he got 14/4 off the bench. John Salley, the long-armed shotblocker, provided rebounding and defense. And no one hit the boards like the enigmatic Dennis Rodman, who grabbed 13 rebounds per game. Mark Aguirre operated both on the wing as a small forward and could also post up. Aguirre’s per-game averages were 14/5.
Detroit got off to a fast start that included a ten-game winning streak in November, but they gave a lot of that back with a 1-7 stretch in December. Even so, they were 32-13 at the end of January and a game ahead of the Chicago Bulls, their sparring partner in the last two Eastern Conference Finals. But a sluggish March cost Detroit ground in the standings, they finished on an up-and-down note and their 50-32 record placed them behind both the Bulls and the Boston Celtics in the East.
The Atlanta Hawks were the first-round playoff opponent. Atlanta was led by the electric small forward Dominque Wilkins, who averaged 26/9. They had a good backcourt, with Doc Rivers and the little 5’6” point guard Spud Webb combining for 28 a night. Kevin Willis could score and rebound in the low post and the Hawks had added the great veteran center, Moses Malone, to try and give them some playoff success.
Detroit played poorly on their home floor to open the series, with Isiah, Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson combining to shoot 9-for-30. The Pistons lost 103-98. They bounced back in Game 2 with a strong defensive effort, forcing Wilkins into 5-for-14 shooting and winning 101-88 behind 28 points from Dumars and 16 rebounds from Rodman. But Detroit had still ceded homecourt advantage and in 1991 the first round was only best-of-five.
The series went south for the next two games and the Pistons promptly dug themselves a 30-15 hole to start Game 3. But the champs showed their resilience. Dumars poured in 30, Isiah dished 13 assists and and Rodman hauled in 13 boards. The 103-91 win ensured they would at least get to return home.
A 123-111 loss in Game 4, with Rivers and Wilkins going off for a combined 58 points, set up the decisive Game 5 back in The Palace. Detroit’s veterans had seen more than their share of these kinds of games and they took control quickly, with a 14-point lead after the first quarter. Isiah and Dumars combined for 48 points and Rodman was dominant, with 20 rebounds. The decisive 113-81 win sent them on to the second round.
The Pistons and Celtics had staged some epic battles in 1987 and 1988, but these weren’t the same Celtics. Larry Bird still got his numbers—19 points/8 rebounds/7 assists—but Larry Legend was often battling injuries. The new stars were Reggie Lewis, Brian Shaw and Kevin Gamble. But a couple holdovers from the old days remained—Kevin McHale and Robert Parish combined to averaged 33 points/18 rebounds per game. These Celtics won 56 games and survived a five-game fight with the Indiana Pacers to open the playoffs.
Bird was out for the opener at Boston Garden and the game was ugly, with each team shooting under 40 percent. Ugly suited the Pistons fine, and with a 55-40 rebounding advantage they grabbed an 86-75 win.
It was Isiah’s turn to be on the shelf as he missed Game 2, with Bird returning. Larry scored 16 and Parish kept the Celtics even on the boards. The 109-103 Boston win sent the series back to Motown tied at a game apiece.
In front of their home fans, Detroit was simply awful in Game 3. Dumars and Isiah combined to shoot 5-for-23 and the result was a 115-83 rout for the Celtics. With the season essentially on the line in Game 4 and Isiah again having to sit out, the Pistons brought all their effort to the boards. Rodman’s 18 rebounds keyed a 50-30 advantage and it was enough to deliver a 104-97 win.
Detroit kept the defensive intensity up in Game 5, forcing Bird and McHale into a combined 13-for-31 shooting performance. Dumars went off for 32, while Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson knocked down 24 each. The Pistons’ 116-111 win put them on the brink of a fifth straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 6 at The Palace was a fabulous basketball game, a magnificent display of effort on both sides. McHale did all he could to save the Celtics, with 34 points and leading a fourth quarter rally that forced overtime. Detroit got another 32-point game from Dumars, while Laimbeer and Rodman keyed another strong rebounding advantage. It was just barely enough—the 117-113 win ended the series.
Detroit had been the thorn in Michael Jordan’s side in the early stage of his career, but the Chicago star was coming into his own. The Bulls were expected to win in the conference finals, but no one was expecting a sweep. But Detroit never got consistent production from anyone in the series, they were badly outrebounded in Game 1, and then Jordan took over the next three games.
The Pistons did themselves no favors by walking off the court before Game 4 was officially over, rather than offering congratulations to the rising power—the same way Celtics players had when Detroit ascended in 1988. Even if the Pistons didn’t want to be gracious, the walkoff was an excessive display of poor sportsmanship.
But time heals everything. And as we look back, this era of Detroit Pistons basketball, from 1987-1991 was marked by excellence and team-oriented basketball in a league where singular stars normally get the rewards. This 1991 team was the last stand of The Bad Boys.