Almost Upset: Bullets-Pistons 1988
The consistently average Washington Bullets return to Almost Upset threatening to once again topple a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Last time we saw Washington, they were led by Jeff Ruland in 1984 and gave the Boston Celtics hell. Well, things have changed drastically in four years.
The roster was so completely turned over from that ‘84 series that only Jeff Malone and Frankie Johnson were still around.
Just a rookie in 1984, Malone had since blossomed into a two-time all-star at shooting guard. Granted he didn’t do much else on the court, but the shooting guard knew how to shoot. From 1985 to 1988, he averaged 21 points, three rebounds, and three assists per game. His percentages were .478 from the field and .872 from the line.
In the middle, big bad Ruland was not only gone from DC, but retired from the NBA due to injury. Washington made one of the great swindles in NBA history, though, when they traded Ruland and (not the headband) Cliff Robinson to the Philadelphia 76ers for Moses Malone in the summer of 1986.
That offseason was a complete train wreck for the Sixers and deserves its own article, but for our purposes it suffices to say that Philly management believed Moses was rapidly diminishing in value due to age (31) and he was coming off an eye injury.
Which, like, fine.
But you don’t trade him away for Ruland, who was only three years younger than Moses AND had only played in 60-some-odd games the previous two years combined because of injury. Ruland played just five games for the Sixers in the ‘86-87 season.
Meanwhile in Washington, Malone was sporting goggles now and averaging 24.1 PPG and 11.3 RPG across 73 games. He was voted a starter in the All-Star Game that year. For 1987-88, Moses was 32 years old and still producing just fine. His scoring dipped to 20.3 PPG, but his FG% rose to .487, his best mark since the 1982-83 season when he was the NBA’s MVP.
The reason for the scoring dip was less to do with Moses’s age than the fact that Washington picked up another abandoned legend of the 1980s NBA.
Bernard King suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1984-85 season. Averaging a league-high 32.9 PPG that year, King’s torn ACL brutally ended that campaign after 55 games. He missed all of the 1986 season.
King nearly missed all of the ‘87 season, too, but his determination to return was the stuff of legend. Busting his ass off, King was able to appear in six games at the very end of the season.
After an understandably timid first outing (seven points, 2-8 FGs), King averaged 25.8 PPG over the final five games. I mean, pretty damn good no matter the circumstances for someone coming off an ACL tear back in the dark ages of knee injuries.
The New York Knicks weren’t interested in retaining the Brooklyn native, though.
King was old news as Patrick Ewing was deemed the star of the future. Obviously, Ewing was the Knicks’ future, but they never even tested the two as a tandem. Ewing missed the final month of that ‘87 season, so never played a game with King, even though they were both on the roster.
In some fairness to New York, other NBA teams seemed skittish on King as well. As a free agent, he went unsigned the entire summer of ‘87. It wasn’t until the end of October that King signed on with the Bullets. Worth the wait as far as Washington was concerned.
Splitting his 69 games between starting and coming off the bench, King was superbly solid in his full comeback season: 17.2 PPG on .501 FG%.
Moses and King alongside Jeff Malone provided a pretty excellent headlining trio for Washington.
Predictably for a seventh seed, the rest of the roster left much to be desired. Their only other reliable players were second-year forward John “Hot Plate” Williams and guard Darrell Walker. Williams would late become (in)famous for his struggles to control his weight, but the forward was a well-rounded force able to play a “glue guy” role on the court.
Same goes for Walker, who was also a great defender. Walker’s apogee came in 1990 when he averaged 9.5 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 8.0 APG, and 1.7 SPG.
The rest of the club was paper thin. Muggsy Bogues wasn’t quite Muggsy Bogues yet. Manute Bol was more novelty at this point playing sparingly as his shot-blocking prowess couldn’t offset the drag he put on the team offensively.
Still, with all those changes, Washington sat at 38 wins for the 1988 season. Typical of the 80s Bullets.
NEW SOUND IN MOTOWN
On the other side of court were the Detroit Pistons, winners of 54 games and the Central Division crown in 1987-88. Over the course of the 1980s, they had reformed themselves from a high-octane offensive squad to a slugging defensive force.
Gone were the days of Kelly Tripucka’s glorious perm netting 20 PPG. Instead, the Pistons had slowly morphed themselves into the “Bad Boys” by trade and draft. In 1985, they traded with Washington for Rick Mahorn. That same year they drafted Joe Dumars 18th overall. In 1986 they netted two rangy forwards (John Salley and Dennis Rodman) in the draft in addition to trading the aforementioned Tripucka to Utah for Adrian Dantley. Midway through the 1987-88 season, they dealt for James Edwards at center.
Look at that beautiful mane. Look at it!
This continuously lopsided set of moves by GM Jack McCloskey buttressed a roster that was fundamentally built around two of basketball’s biggest jerks: Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. The two had been with Detroit since the 1981-82 season along with “The Microwave” Vinnie Johnson.
In 1984, after a seven-year hiatus, the Pistons would make the first of nine straight playoff appearances. However, it wasn’t until 1987, after most of the major moves listed above happened, that Detroit broke through and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
After sweeping the Washington Bullets in the first round and then upsetting the Atlanta Hawks in easy fashion (five games), the Pistons lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games.
For 1988, the Pistons won 54 games compared to 52 the season before. But their defense continued to coalesce into something fierce. In ‘87 they already had the league’s fifth best defense (based on defensive rating). In 1988 they climbed the rankings further placing second in the metric.
Ultimately this Pistons team would push the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the NBA Finals. And in all honesty, I think they should have won. They outscored Los Angeles 101.3 PPG to 98.7 PPG in the series and at one point led 3-games-to-2. However, Thomas’s untimely ankle injury (and a phantom foul on Bill Laimbeer) in Game 6 led to a 103-102 loss in that game. In Game 7, Thomas was still hobbled, but Detroit barely lost 108-105.
However, Detroit’s Finals run was nearly strangled in the crib by the lowly Bullets.
OFFICIAL PROHOOPSHISTORY STARTING LINEUP SCOREBOARD
(the deeper the shade, the bigger the presumable advantage)
The Pistons have an advantage at every position except center, but Laimbeer could outplay Moses on any given night, so this is looking like a romp for Detroit.
An ace up Washington’s sleeve is that “starting point guard” Steve Colter was basically a figure-head. Darrell Walker came off the bench to play 31 minutes a night in the series at guard, while Colter mustered 17 MPG. Walker was much better than Colter, but that still doesn’t fully even out the point guard situation, but it certainly helps. Furthermore, the Malones and King were no slouches and had the wherewithal to take over any game at any time. That’s dangerous for Detroit.
Still… this is a mismatch…
PREDICTION: Pistons sweep!
Oh sure, the Bullets played the game relatively close. They even held a halftime lead, 42-38, but Detroit busted their chops in the third quarter (29-19) and took control of the contest.
Thomas ignited for 34 points, nine rebounds, and four steals proving the point guard situation was perilous for Washington.
On the plus side, Jeff Malone scored 33 points of his own and added eight rebounds. Moses had 21 points and 13 boards. The biggest blow to Washington, however, was what they did not do. Namely, they did not play Bernard King all that much.
Appearing in just 12 minutes off the bench, King scored one point. For some reason, coach Wes Unseld had Charles Jones in the starting lineup this contest. Jones had ZERO points in 27 minutes. He also added just one rebound, one assist, one block, and one steal. Yep, that was playing time gone down the drain.
Good job Coach Unseld.
On to Game 2.
Unseld got the memo on King and the Bullets ALMOST got the victory.
Jones was thrown to the bench and still underwhelmed in his 18 minutes of action. Now in the starting lineup, King got 38 minutes of playing time and scored 12 points. Not sensational, but a helluva lot better than the other option.
The young and soon-to-be-legendary John “Hot Plate” Williams was magnificent in this game, though, as long as we’re not looking at free throws: 19 points, 7-8 FGs, six boards, three assists, two steals, and a block, for the rotund phenom.
(He shot 5-10 FTs)
But the man of the hour for Washington was Jeff Malone. 31 points on 11-20 FGs and 9-9 FTs for the shooting guard. After 33 points in Game 1 and now another 30-point performance it appeared Dumars would have no luck in slowing down the gunner.
Still, the Bullets lost this game. And the culprit was offensive rebounds. Detroit had a 25-9 edge in the category this game.
Shocking considering the Bullets had Moses Malone, but Moses can’t fight off Laimbeer, Edwards, Mahorn, Rodman, and Salley all on his own. Hell, Salley all on his own came off Detroit’s bench and grabbed TEN offensive boards in the game.
Detroit needed every second-chance opportunity because they shot just 39.8% from the field compared to Washington’s 51.4%.
Coming down to the wire, the Bullets held a one-point lead in the final seconds and were looking at an improbable 1-1 series split.
Instead, Isiah Thomas hit a stupid shot over stout defense to win the game. Clifton Brown of the Detroit Free Press described the scene.
The victory was the perfect birthday gift for Thomas, who turned 27 Saturday. His game-winning shot was an acrobatic, right-handed eight-footer in the lane over 6-foot-9 Charles Jones. With the Pistons trailing, 101-100, Bill Laimbeer inbounded to Thomas at midcourt with 15 seconds left. Thomas dribbled into the lane and saw Jones standing right in front of him. Thomas jumped, double-pumped and somehow shot from near his hip, kissing the ball high off the glass and in.
“I went up in the air waiting for him to commit, but he never committed,” Thomas said. “So I had to readjust in the air and double-pump. And the Lord said, ‘OK, Isiah, here you go.’”
Look at this dork. I hate that the Pistons won.
The Bullets did get the ball back with one last chance to win the game. But Jeff Malone was hounded by Dennis Rodman who forced the guard to drive left, his weaker side. Malone stumbled a bit and took an 18-foot jumper with three seconds remaining that missed.
Game over, but Detroit knew they’d narrowly escaped catastrophe.
Dantley conceded that the Bullets “controlled the tempo. We’re not playing well. Maybe the pressure is getting to us a little bit. But it’s still good to be up, 2-0.”
“People have been selling the Bullets short,” Thomas added. “They’ve got a lot of guys over there with pride—Moses Malone, Jeff Malone, Darrell Walker, Bernard King. They’re not going to just roll over and die. They think they can beat us.”
Washington’s Walker, who played a great game off the bench (19 points, nine rebounds) warned, “You can tell by the way we’re playing that we want it. We’ve just come up short. But this series isn’t over. And Monday, we’re giving it our best shot.”
Walker was correct. The Bullets gave Detroit their best and it was just good enough.
Jeff Malone continued to torch Detroit: 35 points on 15-22 FGs.
In fact Washington’s top five players had great games all around. Moses had 23 points and nine rebounds. King boasted 19 points and five assists. Walker came off the bench for 11 points, five rebounds, and four assists. Hot Plate gave utility work with 14 points, six rebounds, three dimes, and three steals
Combined the five players shot 39-67 (.582) from the field.
Nonetheless, the contest went into overtime because Detroit had some stellar play of their own. Dumars stunk it up with 10 points on 2-12 shooting, but Thomas had 29 points and eight assists before fouling out. Dantley had 22 points on 11-15 FGs. And annoying Laimbeer had 18 points, eight boards, four assists, and four blocks.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Bullets held an 80-75 lead, but Detroit reeled off a 12-1 run to seize an 87-81 lead. After going scoreless for over six minutes Washington got back into it and a seesaw commenced.
Jeff Malone connected on a 15-footer to finally give DC its lead back, 93-92. But Detroit kept hammering away as Thomas made two freebies to give the Pistons a 98-96 lead with 34 seconds left.
The venerable King was clutch nailing a corner jumper with 19 seconds left to tie the game at 98. Dumars missed a shot from the top of the key with two seconds left and the game was thrust into OT.
In the extra period, Jeff Malone took full control scoring eight of his 35 points. The king of mid-range hit another 15-footer that put Washington up 106-104. Hot Plate Williams quickly added to the lead making it 108-104. Moses and Walker each hit field goals of their own to push the lead up to 112-106 with 43 seconds left to essentially seal the game and prolong their season.
After averaging 33 PPG, .591 FG%, and .778 FT in the first three games, Jeff Malone had earned the right to talk that shit and he was shit-talkin’ after this one.
Finally the Pistons found some relative relief from the Jeff Malone onslaught. The guard “only” scored 25 points on 10-19 shooting in this game.
However, the other Malone kept grinding away inside (22 points and eight rebounds) while King once again improved his play for the third consecutive game. 19 points on 8-13 FGs for the former scoring champ. The marvelous Hot Plate sizzled once more with 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
Five turnovers somewhat muddied his waters, but anything from Williams was a godsend considering Walker had a poor showing. Just 10 points and five assists on 3-10 FGs for the reserve guard.
Fortuitously for Washington, Detroit’s key piston was out of whack. Thomas scored 17 points but shot only 5-12 FGs and committed six turnovers. Dumars was once more a non-factor with just seven points.
What kept Detroit in the contest was Dantley’s best scoring effort yet (23 points on 11-18 FGs). Oh, and Dennis Rodman suddenly scoring 23 points on 10-12 shooting. Where the hell did that come from?
Anyhoo, Detroit had to rue this loss.
Dantley put the team up 99-95 after hitting a fadeaway jumper with 2:31 left in the game. Nonetheless Washington clawed back into it. Y’all don’t need the full play-by-play but key baskets were thrown around left and right as another seesaw commenced.
Coming down the final stretch and trailing, 103-101, the Free Press described Thomas making “an incredible, high-arching 10-footer from the baseline that tied the score at 103 with 36 seconds left.” However, it was Moses Malone’s turn to hit a key 15-foot jumper. His homage to Jeff put Washington up 105-103 with 22 seconds left. Detroit had one final legit chance at the win, but Thomas missed a three-pointer.
Jeff Malone was fouled on the rebound and sank a free throw to give the game its final score. With the series tied 2-2 and on the verge of a miraculous upset, Washington was truly feeling itself.
“Remember we’ve been winning in the third quarter in both those games at the Silverdome,” said Washington forward Bernard King…. “We’ll remember that when we go up there on Sunday. I believe, in my heart, that we’re going to win.”
And this is where Isiah Thomas’s miracle shot in Game 2 comes back as a pain in the ass for Washington. They would have won this series at this moment 3-1 without it. Instead they were headed back to Michigan for a Game 5.
And it was a looooooong wait. Thus far the series had run on a typical playoff fashion.
Game 1: April 28
Game 2: April 30
Game 3: May 2
Game 4: May 4
One day of rest in between games. So Game 5 would be on May 6, right?
Nope. It wasn’t played until May 8. The time off gave Detroit time to lick its wounds and get comfortable at home.
The time off also gave Joe Dumars some time to find his shot.
After a truly terrible series thus far (9.0 PPG and .297 FG%), Dumars came out with 20 points and six assists on 7-11 FGs and 6-6 FTs. Thomas put up 16 points, 11 assists, six boards, and five steals. Rodman and Salley trooped in off the bench with a combined 19 points, 15 rebounds, and 8-11 FGs. Rodman alone scored 12 points in the fourth quarter.
(SIDENOTE: You know who never showed up in this series? Vinnie Johnson. Just 6.6 PPG on .308 FG% for the so-called Microwave.)
Detroit’s defense absolutely smothered Washington. The quintet of Malone-Malone-King-Walker-Williams shot an abysmal 25.8% from the field. Just 16 makes on 62 attempts.
Particularly disheartening were the Malones. Jeff was just 1-12 after being a flamethrower thus far. Moses struggled with 2-10 shooting, but did manage 11-12 FTs.
Free throws aside, the smothering was complete and total. The Pistons won every quarter of the game as they slowly strangled the Bullets. A five-point first quarter margin was followed by a five-point second quarter margin followed by a three-point third quarter margin followed by an eight-point fourth quarter margin.
Relieved to be done with the series, Pistons coach Chuck Daly looked ahead to a matchup with the Chicago Bulls and wanted nothing more to do with the Bullets.
“It’ll be a great series,” Daly said. “This one was, too. But you know what? I probably won’t even watch the films of this series. I don’t want to see it anymore. Some people expected us to just breeze into the next round, but it’s rarely that easy. We did what we needed to do. It’s history. We can finally put this series to rest.”
Bill Laimbeer made the feeling even more succinct and visceral.
A reporter asked the center, “What did this series teach you?”
“That every game is a bitch.”
Next time on Almost Upset: Boston appears for a third time and Chuck Person returns as the Pacers and Celtics battle in the 1991 playoffs!