After seven grueling months of basketball, the stage was finally set. The defending world champion Detroit Pistons would take on the upstart Portland Trail Blazers for the right to be called champions. The top-seeded Pistons breezed through the Pacers in Round One, dispatched the Knicks in five games in the conference semifinals and were taken to the brink of elimination against the Bulls before prevailing in seven to win the East and get the chance to defend their crown.
The two teams faced off against each other twice during the regular season with each team holding serve at home. It was the Trail Blazers winning handily at Memorial Coliseum, 102-82, back on November 26 and the Pistons squeaking out a 111-106 victory in Motown on January 13. And even though both teams sported a 59-23 regular season record and split their two seasonal games, the Pistons were awarded the invaluable home-court advantage due to being division winners. Detroit won the Central while Portland finished second to Los Angeles in the Pacific.
For the Trail Blazers, no longer could they rely on just taking care of business at the “Crazy Coliseum” to move on. To bring the Rose City back their first title in 13 years, the Trail Blazers would have to win at least one time on the Pistons’ floor. And that would be no easy task. Throughout the regular season, Detroit compiled a 35-6 record at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and was just as invincible at home during the postseason as Portland was, never losing in nine contests.
Both teams were dominant at home and showcased two of the league’s finest backcourt duos. But that is where the similarities end. Portland loved pushing the tempo at any opportunity and letting their athletes fly around on the fast break while Detroit thrived on playing a tough, nasty breed of defense, hence the nickname “Bad Boys” which kick started their offense. Over the course of the regular season, Portland put up 114 points per game – fourth best in the league. One the other hand, Detroit protected the paint with its life, allowing a miniscule 98.3 points – tops in the entire NBA. Two clashing styles; something had to give.
Game One would be remembered in Rip City as a golden opportunity lost. A chance to put the Pistons behind in a playoff series for the first time all postseason was thwarted by the brilliance of Isiah Thomas. The little big man for Detroit scored 16 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter to spark a Pistons rally, leading them to a 105-99 series opening win. Early on it was all Trail Blazers, leading by double-figures midway through the second quarter and behind Kevin Duckworth’s 12 third-quarter points, Portland found themselves ahead, 80-76, with 12 minutes to go. The lead swelled as high as 10 with seven minutes left in the final frame but along with Thomas’ offensive artistry – did I mention he found time to hand out six assists and grab seven rebounds as well? – and domination of the glass, the Pistons escaped.
Although Portland got a double-double from Buck Williams (20 points, 12 rebounds) and a balanced scoring attack (each starter posting at least 16 points), Detroit corralled 19 offensive boards en route to a 54-46 advantage on the backboard. Neither team shot the ball particularly well (Portland 45.9%, Detroit 37.4%), but the Pistons were able to make a living at the line, getting there an astounding 46 times and converting 34 compared to the Trail Blazers’ 18 makes in 28 attempts. Instead of putting Detroit’s backs up against the wall, it was Portland feeling the heat as this would be the first time all postseason that they had trailed in a playoff series.
“I have no problems at all knowing how they’ll respond. I think they know they should have won the game,” answered Rick Adelman after Game One’s defeat. He knew his group was resilient and always answered the call when faced with adversity.
For a while it appeared Game Two would play out exactly like the previous contest as Portland stormed out of the gates, outscoring Detroit 30-13 in the second quarter, aiding them to a six-point lead heading into the last quarter. Even Isiah had a chance to play hero once more but his fall-away from the right side found iron and they headed into overtime. Portland was 2-0 in overtime affairs so far that postseason while this would be the Pistons’ first real test at home.
It was a back and forth battle all night long and the extra session of basketball proved to be no different. After Buck Williams calmly drilled two free throws with nine ticks left, Portland was on top 104-102. But the Pistons had an answer in the form of center Bill Laimbeer. On most other nights, Laimbeer was better known for throwing elbows than connecting on trifectas but not on this night. Already 5-for-8 from downtown, Laimbeer – appearing to pass at first – took one dribble before finding nothing but net for his sixth three of the game to put the Pistons up one with only four seconds to go. It was time for Portland to get the ball into the hands of their rising superstar, Clyde Drexler.
The Glide had countered every Pistons attack with buckets of his own and had one more up his sleeve. Seeing Dennis Rodman defending him, he took the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year to the rack, got the foul and converted the biggest free throws of his Trail Blazers career to put Portland on top 106-105 with under two seconds to play. One final play was needed to earn the much-desired split. Detroit inbounded, found James Edwards – a player with a nearly unblockable shot – but rookie Cliff Robinson left his man, collapsed on Edwards and got his hand on the ball, forcing it to deflect off the side of the backboard. Portland was able to flip the switch, becoming the aggressors and along with Terry Porter’s NBA Finals record 15-for-15 performance at the line, outshot Detroit 41-25 at the charity stripe. BlazerManiacs worldwide could sense it. Their boys were coming home, back to the Glass Palace – a place they felt untouchable – just three games shy of winning it all. Everything seemed to be aligning perfectly.
Speaking of aligning perfectly, Veterans Memorial Coliseum was the ultimate House of Horrors for the Detroit Pistons. Heading into Game Three, they had not won in the Rose City in 17 years. And just as Coach Adelman said, “You win this game; you start to put serious doubt into their minds.” But they were the defending champs for a reason and behind 75 points from Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, and Isiah Thomas, the Pistons broke the Rose City jinx and walked away with a 121-106 victory. Not even Clyde’s brilliant 24-point, 13-rebound, eight-assist night was enough to offset the hot shooting Pistons (53.1% FG) on this night.
At the time, no team had ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit, so needless to say, Game Four was a must win for the Trail Blazers. Portland came out desperate, laying it all on the line and the scoreboard saw the fruits of their labor after one period; Portland 31, Detroit 21. But it was as if the entire city of Portland was witnessing déjà vu all over again; Vinnie Johnson carried Detroit through the second quarter and Isiah was unconscious in the third, going off for 16 points in the frame growing the Piston lead to as high as 16. Then Portland fought back, caught fire, and even took a lead late in the game. Did the Trail Blazers have another Houdini act up their sleeves? Not tonight. Whether it was Isiah, Joe, or Vinnie, the Pistons always had an answer. Even with Danny Young’s Hail Mary 3-pointer finding nothing but net – seemingly tying the game – it was nullified after it left his hand a millisecond after the game clock struck triples zeros. The Portland players, coaches and fans had to be thinking, “What more do we have to do?” Kersey put in a new playoff career-high 33 points , Drexler nearly put together another triple double (34 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds) and they outshot Detroit (54.8% to 46.2%), yet the Pistons still had the 3-1 series lead.
If the Pistons wanted to go back-to-back, it appeared they would have to do it at the Palace of Auburn Hills. After Buck Williams brought the Coliseum to its feet with a slam dunk, the Trail Blazers led by seven with just two minutes to play and all seemed right in Rip City. But the Trail Blazers forgot to unplug “The Microwave”. Vinnie Johnson scored seven of Detroit’s final nine points, including the game-winning leaner from 15 feet. It was over. Detroit takes the series in five in heartbreaking fashion, winning 92-90. The dream season which seemed destined to end with nothing short of a championship would not come to fruition.
The Trail Blazers simply lost to the better team. In each game lost, Portland was badly outscored off the bench to the tune of 120 points to 34 overall as Detroit was able to counter Portland’s balance in the starting five with a bevy of offensive firepower. Be it Johnson or Mark Aguirre, the Trail Blazers never had an answer. If it wasn’t the bench, it was Finals MVP Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars carrying the Pistons at the most opportune times. Then there was the Detroit “Bad Boys” style defense that flustered the Trail Blazers a bit. They held the high-octane Trail Blazers to 102 points per game in the NBA Finals – the lowest point total Portland was held to all postseason long.
Even though the dream season came up three wins shy of supremacy, the future was bright in the Rose City. Clyde Drexler’s superstar was shining brightly. Terry Porter proved he could go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s elite and more than hold his own. Jerome Kersey showed the nation he was much more than a great dunker as his all-around performance was seen front and center. Kevin Duckworth proved his All-Star appearance the year prior was no fluke. And Buck Williams’ impact was just getting started. With just a few offseason tweaks, these Trail Blazers would go from Cinderella to heavy favorites heading into the 1990-91 season.