1990: Pistons versus Trailblazers (The Bad Boys Repeat)

Background

After winning the 1989 NBA Finals by sweeping the Lakers, the Pistons had no plans of slowing down. They once again tore through the Eastern Conference and won a division-best 59 games and the number one seed in the playoffs. Detroit started out the playoffs by sweeping the Indiana Pacers. In the second round, the Pistons faced the New York Knicks and beat them in five games. The Eastern Conference Finals once again pit Detroit against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. This hard-fought series saw the home team win every game, and the Pistons moved on to their third straight NBA Finals to defend their championship.

The Portland Trailblazers also won 59 games in the 1990 regular season, entering the NBA playoffs with the number three seed. The first round saw Portland take on the Dallas Mavericks, whom they managed to sweep in three games. The conference semifinals was the toughest part of the Blazers’ playoff run, as it took seven games to defeat rookie David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. Portland was expecting to face the number one seed Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, but Phoenix upset Los Angeles in the previous round. The Trailblazers dispatched the Suns in six games and moved on to the NBA Finals against the Pistons, their first appearance since 1977.

Lineups

The Pistons’ backcourt still featured starters Isiah Thomas at point guard and Joe Dumars at shooting guard. The frontcourt saw the most difference, as Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman took over the starting small forward spot in the playoffs. Bill Laimbeer slid over to power forward to replace the departed Rick Mahorn, and James Edwards now started at center.

Vinnie Johnson was still the spark plug off the bench as the backup guard. Mark Aguirre came off the bench behind Rodman at small forward in the playoffs, and John Salley was still the backup big man. Players to see limited minutes in the Finals include veteran Gerald Henderson, Scott Hastings, and Dave Greenwood.

For Portland, fifth-year point guard Terry Porter started and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler was the shooting guard. Jerome Kersey started in the frontcourt at small forward. The Trailblazers’ post was manned by veteran Buck Williams at power forward and seven-footer Kevin Duckworth at center.

The Trailblazers’ bench only ran five players deep in the NBA Finals. Sixth-year guard Danny Young served as Porter’s backup, and Croatian-born Drazen Petrovic played backup shooting guard. Rookie Clifford Robinson filled the role of backup forward, while Mark Bryant and Wayne Cooper served as the backup big men.

Game One: Trailblazers 99, Pistons 105

The rested Trailblazers came out ready to steal a game on the road and led by ten with seven minutes to go. Isiah and the Pistons responded with a 16-4 run to take their first lead. Thomas capped off the run with a huge three-pointer (1:06) over Terry Porter to make it 99-95. Detroit would go on to win behind 20 points from Dumars, 33/7/6 from Isiah, a double-double from Laimbeer, and 18 points off the bench for Aguirre. The Portland starters combined for 92 points and 37 rebounds, but Porter fouled out with seven turnovers, and their bench scored only seven points in the game one loss.

Game Two: Trailblazers 106, Pistons 105 (OT)

Despite being thwarted in game one, the Trailblazers were determined to win a game on the road in Detroit. They again led in the fourth quarter before Bill Laimbeer went wild from three-point range. The Pistons’ big man made six three-point field goals in the game, tying Michael Cooper’s record from 1984. Detroit rallied back in the fourth to tie the game and send it to overtime, but Isiah Thomas fouled out with 1:10 left and the Pistons trailing by two. Laimbeer hit his last three-pointer with 4.1 seconds left to take back the lead, but Clyde Drexler made two free throws after being fouled by Rodman on the way to the basket. Rookie Clifford Robinson made a huge block on James Edwards’ last-second attempt to clinch the road win for Portland. Drexler scored a game-high 33 points, and Porter and Buck Williams both delivered double-doubles. Thomas contributed 23 points and 11 assists before fouling out, and Laimbeer, Dumars, and Edwards combined for 68 points as Portland stole home-court advantage.

Game Three: Pistons 121, Trailblazers 106

Joe Dumars played through game three with a heavy heart, as his ill father battled for his life in the hospital. A consummate professional, Dumars had asked his wife not to inform him of his father’s status until after the game. The Pistons led wire-to-wire in the first game played in Portland, and Dumars carried the team with 33 points. Although Detroit missed Rodman (out with an ankle injury), Vinnie Johnson rained in 21 points off the bench. The Trailblazers shot poorly from the field collectively, offsetting 71 points combined from Porter, Drexler, and Kersey. The Pistons won to take a 2-1 series lead, and after the game Dumars’ wife called to tell him of his father’s passing. Joe decided he would play in game four but declined any press interviews.

Game Four: Pistons 112, Trailblazers 109

The Pistons led early in game four, and Thomas scored 22 points in the third quarter to push their lead to 16 before the Trailblazers responded with a 28-11 run of their own. Following a lay-up by Porter to take the lead for Portland, the final minute saw three lead changes. Detroit led by three with 1.8 seconds to go as Trailblazers’ guard Danny Young knocked down a 35-footer that seemingly tied the game. Referee Earl Strom, however, waved off the basket, saying Young released the shot after the buzzer. Video replay showed Strom to be correct in nullifying the basket. Drexler’s 34/8/10 and Kersey’s 33 and 8 fell by the wayside as the Pistons took a 3-1 series lead behind Thomas’ team-high 32 points, Dumars’ 26 points, and Johnson’s 20 points off the bench.

Game Five: Pistons 92, Trailblazers 90

The Pistons led the series 3-1 and looked to close out the Trailblazers in Portland in game five. Detroit held the first quarter lead, but Portland rallied back to take the lead into the fourth quarter. In the final period, the Pistons looked to Thomas, Johnson, and Salley to close out the game. Despite trailing by seven with two minutes left, Detroit tied the game after a three-point play by Johnson, a dunk off an offensive rebound by Salley, and a jumper by Isiah. The Trailblazers were stifled on offense during the closing stretch, and the Pistons had possession with the game tied and less than 20 seconds left. Isiah worked the clock down and drove, dishing the ball off to Vinnie Johnson, who dribbled left and drained a jumper over Jerome Kersey to give the Pistons the lead for good at 92-90. Thomas finished with a game-high 29 points, and Laimbeer contributed 17 rebounds alongside Johnson’s 16 points. All five Portland starters finished in double-figures, but it was not enough as Detroit clinched their second straight championship.

Aftermath

Behind the Finals MVP performance of Isiah Thomas and his supporting cast in Laimbeer, Dumars, and Johnson, the 1990 Detroit Pistons clinched back-to-back championships. Their reign atop the conference would end the following season, however, as Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls finally overcame the Pistons by sweeping them in the Eastern Conference Finals. After 1990, Detroit wouldn’t reach the NBA Finals again until 2004, when they once again faced the Los Angeles Lakers.

For the Trailblazers, their loss in the 1990 NBA Finals stung, but the team would rally and reach the championship series again two years later in 1992. Although they were more successful in the ’92 series, Portland once again would come up short and lose in the Finals. As the roster went through a rebuilding over the following years, the team wouldn’t experience great postseason success until the end of the decade when the would reach the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons.

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