Vinnie, Vidi, Vici: Pistons Repeat Feat : NBA finals: Johnson hits game-winner in last second as Detroit rallies from seven-point deficit for a 92-90 victory. Thomas is the unanimous choice as MVP.
Portray them as villainous, if you must. There certainly is a wealth of material, from Bill Laimbeer’s sneer to that self-dubbed “Bad Boy” veneer, to support the branding of America’s Most Hated Team on the Detroit Pistons.
But also call them NBA champions. Do not begrudge them greatness. The Pistons, who won their first title last season against the injury-depleted Lakers, confirmed their place in dominating fashion in this NBA finals series by beating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games for consecutive titles.
No what-ifs or injury-tainted victories this time. With a 92-90 victory Thursday night in Game 5, coming on Vinnie Johnson’s off-balance, 14-foot jump shot with 0.7 seconds left, the Pistons proved superior from start to finish.
“We don’t know what our place in history will be; that’s for others to decide,” Laimbeer said. “But we don’t think any team can touch us at this time.
“We didn’t talk about it much, but we carried a little bit of a grudge this year because we didn’t get the respect we deserved. Because people didn’t think we deserved it last season. We can talk about it now, because I think people have finally recognized just how special and good a team we are.”
Only the third team to win consecutive championships, the Pistons now can justifiably be compared with the great Boston Celtic and Laker teams.
Unquestionably, Isiah Thomas’ dominance in this series may forever obliterate those “overrated” whispers sometimes heard about the Piston guard around the league.
In winning the series most valuable player award, Thomas almost single-handedly won Game 1 with a classic shooting display, his defense stifled Portland point guard Terry Porter and, all told, he averaged 27.6 points and shot 54.2% for the series.
All Thomas did in Game 5 was score 29 points, survive a bloodied nose from a Jerome Kersey forearm, sink the tying basket with 36 seconds left in a 9-0 Piston comeback and then set up Johnson for the game-winning shot.
“We never talked about it all season, but for the past four to five years, we felt like we were one of the best teams in the history of basketball,” Thomas said. “We wanted to repeat as champions, but not so much to prove it to anybody else, just for ourselves.”
No, that wouldn’t be the Piston way. They always have been renegades of sorts, thumbing their noses at the Establishment.
As a result, total respect previously had eluded the Pistons. Maybe it was their image. Maybe it was because they have no definitive star and they depend on such mundane areas as defense, depth and a balanced offense.
“Not enough can be said about this team,” Piston Coach Chuck Daly said. “It’s so defensively sound, and deep, and they operate on offense so well because they are unselfish. All those things make them a great team.”
Those virtues were never more evident than in this series. Three of the Pistons’ four victories were close games in which they made the big plays and showed more poise than the Trail Blazers, who advanced to the finals for the first time since 1977.
“It was not a good way to end the series,” said Trail Blazer guard Clyde Drexler, who fouled out during the Pistons’ final run. “In our wildest beliefs, we didn’t imagine we would lose three straight at home.”
Said Portland Coach Rick Adelman: “Any team that can beat us three times in our own building is a great one, and that’s why the Pistons are the champions.”
The Pistons, trailing by seven points with 2:02 left Thursday, could have packed it in and figured they could win the series in Michigan. But that would have been out of character.
They said coming in that they enjoy the satisfaction of winning the title on the road, as they did in the Forum last season. They also wanted the distinction of being the first team to win three consecutive road games since the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 format in 1985.
Here’s how they did it:
First, and perhaps most important, Thomas returned. He had left with about seven minutes to play after running headlong into Kersey’s forearm during a chase for a loose ball. Thomas’ swollen nose would not stop bleeding.
When the cobwebs left and the blood clotted, Thomas saw that the Pistons trailed, 90-83. But Johnson made the first dent into the deficit by beating defender Danny Young for a jumper with 1:50 left. Drexler fouled Johnson--his sixth--and the accompanying free throw sliced the Trail Blazer lead to 90-86.
Kevin Duckworth (21 points) then missed an open jumper with 1:32 left, and Johnson countered by sinking a jumper with 1:21 left to pull Detroit within two. Duckworth tried again, muscling in against Laimbeer, playing with five fouls. But the Portland center missed a short hook and, after a jump ball, Thomas sank a running jumper with 36 seconds left to tie it.
Sixteen seconds later, the Pistons’ defense kicked in again. Pressured by Thomas, Porter tried to drive the lane but was cut off. His pass to Kersey sailed out of bounds with 20 seconds left.
Pistons’ ball. Pistons’ game.
At least, that’s what the brazen Pistons were telling each other during a timeout to set up the last play.
“To tell you the truth, I never thought about overtime,” guard Joe Dumars said. “I thought someone on the floor for us would make the winning shot. That’s the kind of confidence I have in this team.”
Daly, perhaps coaching his last game as an offer from NBC looms, designed a play in which Thomas had the ball at the top of the key and two players were spread out in each corner.
Thomas dribbled down the clock, then Johnson moved forward to receive the pass with about three seconds left. Johnson took a dribble and tried to square to the basket. He was off balance when he released the ball, but that is Johnson’s style.
It swished with 0.7 seconds left for a 92-90 lead.
“We got so many guys who can make that shot, it just happened to be me this time,” Johnson said. “I knew, with time running out, I couldn’t get the ball back to Isiah. So I took one dribble. I gave a shoulder move to get more open. The shot didn’t feel good when I released it, but when it went in, I felt good.”
The Pistons had a lot to feel good about. They simply dominated the Trail Blazers. Portland had tied Detroit for the league’s second best regular-season record, but the Pistons clearly were better.
“I don’t want this to sound immodest, but we were the better basketball team,” Thomas said.
Why should the Pistons be modest now? Their confident swagger and elitist attitude about doing whatever it takes to win has made them the NBA’s elite team, maybe one of the best ever. “I don’t know how long we’ll last on top,” Laimbeer said. “But we’ll enjoy it while it lasts.”
Adelman wants to get to the top--soon. “We’re trying to build something here, and hopefully this is our first step toward winning a championship,” he said. “I hope we will be back next year.
“I think it’s going to take a couple of days to get over the disappointment of this loss. But when we look back on things, and what we accomplished this year, I think everybody should feel proud.”
The Pistons, unlike another familiar team that won won back-to-back titles, did not talk about a “three-peat.” They could not even firm up their plans for next week, let alone next season.
Daly, 59, eluded questions of his future as expertly as his team dodged repeated Trail Blazer threats.
“I don’t know,” Daly said when asked whether he will return for another season. “I kind of like coaching. I’ve gotten reasonably good at it. I’m just going to take my time and see what happens. I want to enjoy this. Not too many coaches get the opportunity to savor back-to-back world championships.”
And, will this veteran group--average age 30.4--be able to succeed again, especially if they have to do it under a new coach and new system?
“I don’t know how long it will last,” Laimbeer said. “And I don’t care. We’re the best right now, OK?”
NBA CHAMPIONSHIP DETROIT vs. PORTLAND RESULTS
Game 1 Detroit 105, Portland 99 Game 2 Portland 106, Detroit 105 Game 3 Detroit 121, Portland 106 Game 4 Detroit 112, Portland 109 Game 5 Detroit 92, Portland 90
Detroit wins series, 4-1
* ISIAH: The Piston guard, his halo and reputation askew, is finally honored as a most valuable player, an award his teammates say is long overdue their floorleader. C10
* VJ’S NIGHT: Vinnie Johnson hits the game-winning shot and then joins a celebration for the present and sorrowful remembrance of loved ones lost. C10