After Coach Pat Riley promised a repeat during the 1987 victory parade, anything short of a championship for the Lakers would be considered a failure. Nevertheless, Los Angeles won a league-best 61 games in the regular season and looked to be well on their way to defending their title. In the playoffs the Lakers quickly swept the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, but they found trouble in the next two series against the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. In both series, the Lakers needed seven games to eliminate their opponent, but eventually they found their way to a second straight NBA Finals matched up with the Detroit Pistons. No team had ever won the championship after playing in two seven-game series, and the Lakers were looking to become the first team to defy the so-called “curse.”
The “Bad Boys” Pistons came into 1988 on a mission, having lost narrowly in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics the previous year. Led by Coach Chuck Daly, they won 54 games and finished the regular season with the second seed in the playoffs. In the first round Detroit took five games to beat the Washington Bullets. In the conference semifinals the Pistons met league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls (having made it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career). Detroit won the series in five games and moved on to face their rival Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons finally overcame Boston in a six-game series and moved on to their first NBA Finals since moving from Fort Wayne to Detroit.
The Lakers starting lineup in 1988 was identical to the previous season. Magic Johnson was still the starting point guard, and Byron Scott was Magic’s backcourt mate at shooting guard. James Worthy, now in his sixth season, was still the starting small forward. In the post, Los Angeles used A.C. Green at power forward alongside center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the captain, now 41-years-old.
Los Angeles had a fairly thin bench in 1988. Michael Cooper was still the primary backup in the backcourt behind Johnson, Scott, and Worthy. Mychal Thompson served as the backup big man behind Green and Kareem. Kurt Rambis was the fourth big man, though he and fourth guard Wes Matthews rarely played in the Finals. Tony Campbell, Mike Smrek, and Milt Wagner didn’t see the floor often.
For Detroit, seventh year player Isiah “Zeke” Thomas was the starting point guard alongside shooting guard Joe Dumars. Former scoring champion Adrian Dantley played small forward alongside power forward Rick Mahorn and center Bill Laimbeer, an enforcer who was involved in many scuffles in his career.
The Pistons’ bench was far deeper than the Lakers’. Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson backed up both Thomas and Dumars at guard. Young Dennis Rodman and John Salley served as the backup forwards for Dantley and Mahorn, and James Edwards backed up Laimbeer at center. Walker Russell, Ralph Lewis, and Chuck Nevitt barely played in the Finals.
Game One: Pistons 105, Lakers 93
The upstart Pistons stunned The Forum in Los Angeles by jumping out to a 8-0 lead and eventual game one victory. At the end of the half, Bill Laimbeer hit a three-pointer, and Isiah Thomas stole a pass and hit another three-pointer at the buzzer, pushing their lead to 17. Dantley led all scorers with 34, and Zeke turned in a nifty 19 points, 12 assists, and 4 steals. Vinnie Johnson helped out with 16 points off the bench. The first game was a disaster for both Michael Cooper and Kareem; the pair combined for only 8 points off 4/20 shooting. Byron Scott had 25 points, Magic contributed a near triple-double with 28/8/10, and Worthy scored 19 points after injuring his hip in the first half. It was not enough, however, as the Pistons’ bench outscored the Lakers’ 32-4 en route to a 1-0 series lead.
Game Two: Pistons 96, Lakers 108
Game two was a must-win for the Lakers, as the next three would take place in Detroit. Los Angeles held the lead throughout most of the game, but Detroit went on a run in the fourth quarter to tie it. A controversial play occurred with less than two minutes to go when Kareem appeared to air-ball a Skyhook as the shot clock expired. Rodman stole Worthy’s pass off the rebound and could have brought the Pistons to within three points. The referees elected to return possession to the Lakers after the replay showed that Kareem’s shot barely nicked the back of the rim, and Los Angeles held off Detroit to win the game. Worthy had 26 points and 10 rebounds, Magic had 23 points and 11 assists while playing with the flu, Byron Scott scored 24 points, and A.C. Green delivered a double-double. For Detroit, Adrian Dantley led the way with 19 points, but no other Piston scored more than 13. The series now turned to Detroit tied at one game apiece.
Game Three: Lakers 99, Pistons 86
The first game at the Pontiac Silverdome was a close affair until the third quarter, when the Lakers exploded for 31 points and claimed the lead for good. Worthy led Los Angeles with a team-high 24 points and 9 rebounds, Magic played solid with 18 points, 14 assists, and 3 steals, and the other three starters combined for 51 points. A.C. Green, in particular, played outstanding by making 9 of 11 shots from the field. For the Pistons, Isiah scored a game-high 28 points and dished out 9 assists. Laimbeer scored 10 and Dantley scored 14, but no other Detroit player scored more than 8 points. Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson shot poorly and converted only 3 of 11 shots. The Lakers now held a 2-1 series lead.
Game Four: Lakers 86, Pistons 111
With the series on the line, Detroit struck back at home by blowing out the Lakers and tied the Finals at two games apiece. The Pistons made an effort to attack the basket and landed Magic in foul trouble. Dantley led all scorers with 27 points, Zeke finished with a near triple-double of 10/9/12, and backups Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards combined for 30 points off the bench. Magic led the Lakers with 23 points despite accumulating five fouls. Byron Scott and Kareem contributed 13 points each, but Worthy had a lackluster performance making only 3/9 shots for 7 points. With this win, the Pistons guaranteed that the series would go back to Los Angeles at least for game six.
Game Five: Lakers 94, Pistons 104
As the Pistons’ final game at Pontiac Silverdome, game five brought in over 41,000 screaming fans. Despite a run by Los Angeles to start the game 10-0, Detroit bounced back to take control in the second quarter behind Vinnie Johnson’s scoring outburst and Dantley’s 21 first half points. The Lakers were hampered by foul trouble, as Green, Cooper, and Worthy all were saddled with their third foul early in the second quarter. Los Angeles stormed back in the third quarter, but the Pistons held them off in the fourth and won to take a 3-2 series lead. Dantley finished with 25 points, Isiah scored 15 points and dished out 8 assists, and Dumars made 9/13 shots for 19 points. Kareem and Mychal Thompson combined for 40 points, but the rest of the Lakers shot poorly from the field despite Magic’s 17 assists. The series now returned to Los Angeles where the defending champions would have to win both games to retain their title.
Game Six: Pistons 102, Lakers 103
Back in Los Angeles the Pistons looked to close out the series and win their first title in franchise history. The Lakers started off strong and held a five point lead at the half and an eight point lead in the third quarter. Detroit stormed back behind Isiah Thomas’ scoring outburst after the point guard scored 14 straight for the Pistons, but they appeared doomed after he rolled his ankle stepping on Michael Cooper’s foot. Isiah left the game but returned less than a minute later and continued his historic feat, scoring 11 of the team’s final 15 points in the third quarter and gave the Pistons a two point lead over Los Angeles. The fourth quarter went back and forth and found the Lakers trailing by three with less than a minute left. After a Byron Scott jumper cut it to one, Kareem was fouled by Laimbeer while attempting a skyhook. The veteran center made both foul shots to give the Lakers a one point lead with 14 seconds left, and the Los Angeles defense held on to secure the game six victory and force a decisive seventh game. All five starters for the Lakers scored in double figures, with Worthy and Johnson leading the way with 28 points and 19 assists respectively. Detroit came up short in their close-out bid, but Isiah finished with an incredible 43 points, injured ankle and all.
Game Seven: Pistons 105, Lakers 108
The Lakers had never won a game seven in the NBA Finals since moving to Los Angeles and looked to rewrite that script against the Pistons. After falling behind by five following the first half, Worthy scored the first seven points for the Lakers in the third quarter and the team made its first 10 shots from the floor to reclaim the lead. Isiah Thomas was limited by his injured ankle and played sparingly in the second half; Los Angeles built a 15 point lead in his absence. In the fourth quarter, Detroit charged back behind the shooting of Vinnie Johnson and Dumars, trimming the Lakers’ lead to two with a minute left. Los Angeles made four free throws before Bill Laimbeer hit a 28-foot three-pointer to make it a one point game with six seconds left, but A.C. Green converted a lay-up off a length of the court pass from Magic. With two seconds left and down by three, Isiah lost the ball near halfcourt and the Lakers’ victory was sealed. This was the first time since 1969 that a team won back-t0-back NBA titles. Worthy turned in a triple-double 36/16/10 in the final game, earning the Finals MVP award. Magic delivered 19 points and 14 assists, Byron Scott scored 21, and Cooper and Thompson contributed a huge 24 points combined off the bench. Dumars, Salley, and Dantley combined for 58 points for Detroit but it was not enough to overcome the Lakers.
The 1988 NBA Finals victory would turn out to be the last for the “Showtime” Lakers. They would reach the Finals again a year later in a rematch with the Pistons, but injuries to the backcourt led to an easy sweep for Detroit. The 1989 season would also be the last for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as the future Hall of Famer finally retired after 20 seasons. Magic, Kareem, and Cooper were the only members of the Lakers to participate in all five of the ’80s championship teams.
Their loss in the 1988 NBA Finals stung for the Pistons, but they would return in 1989 with a renewed energy and swept the Lakers in a Finals rematch. Their appearance in the 1988 Finals was the first of three straight, as Detroit would go on to win the NBA Finals in both 1989 and 1990. A key transaction that facilitated their repeat titles was trading Adrian Dantley in February of 1989 to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for the slightly younger Mark Aguirre.