How Did Michael Jordan Do Head-to-Head With Isiah Thomas?

Some rivalries transcend time. The Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas battle is undoubtedly one of those. The two last met on a basketball court in 1993, but the bad blood between the two resonates well into the 21st century.

In the 2020 documentary series The Last Dance, Jordan talked about his dislike for Thomas. His Airness also denied the long-held belief that Jordan prevented Thomas from being named to the Dream Team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Thomas has said he never saw Jordan as competition because of an advantage in the head-to-head matchups between the Detroit Pistons and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Was it that dominant? The numbers bear out some of Thomas’s assertion, but not all of it.

Michael Jordan, not surprisingly, far surpassed the individual numbers of Isiah Thomas

In the regular season, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas met 43 times over nine seasons.

It’s important to note the pair seldom guarded each other. Jordan was a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, while Thomas was just 6-foot-1 and played point guard.

As one might expect, Jordan had a considerable advantage in scoring. He averaged 31.6 points in 39.8 minutes per game in those 43 meetings to go with 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.3 steals a night. Jordan took 23.4 shots per game, making 47.6%, hit 22.9% from 3-point range on 1.6 attempts a game, and shot 83.6% at the foul line.

Thomas logged 37.4 minutes per game and averaged 21.0 points, 9.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. Thomas shot 44.4% on 16.9 attempts a game, hit 40.9% on 1.5 deep tries a night, and canned 79.5% of his foul shots.

The statistical disparity did not change in the playoffs.

Individual playoff numbers similarly lopsided

Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan
Isiah Thomas (L) after he fouled Michael Jordan in a game during Jordan’s rookie season. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Pistons and Bulls met in 22 playoff games during the era Michael Jordan led the Bulls, and Isiah Thomas was the heart of the Pistons. Jordan again won the battle of individual statistics.

He averaged 30.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 2.1 steals in 42.0 minutes per game. Jordan’s shooting slash line was .481/.304/.814. By contrast, Thomas scored 18.9 points a night to go with 8.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.2 steals in 38.5 minutes. Zeke’s shooting was significantly worse than in the regular season. Thomas posted an ugly slash line of .397/.261/.791.

Jordan took fewer shots per game in the playoffs despite the uptick in playing time, averaging 21.0 shot attempts. Thomas’ volume was also lower, but not by as much of a margin, as he hoisted 16.4 attempts per game.

Michael Jordan against Isiah Thomas from a team perspective

Isiah Thomas did hold the edge over Michael Jordan when it came to wins and losses in their head-to-head meetings. In the regular season, the Pistons went 24–19. The longest winning streak by either team in those games was six straight wins for Detroit. That came in their first championship season of 1988–89 when the Pistons swept the season series from Chicago 6–0. Jordan’s Bulls won four in a row from April 21, 1991, to Jan. 24, 1992.

The Bulls and Pistons played each other in four straight postseasons from 1988–91.

In an Eastern Conference semifinal series in 1988, the Bulls stole homecourt advantage with a Game 2 victory at the Pontiac Silverdome. But two dominant wins by the Pistons in Chicago allowed Detroit to close the series in five games. Chicago was seeded third, Detroit held the No. 2 seed.

In 1989, the top-seeded Pistons met the Cinderella Bulls, who entered the postseason as a No. 6 seed. Chicago won Game 1 on the road. Detroit got homecourt advantage back with a Game 4 win at Chicago Stadium. The Pistons closed out the series in Game 6 at Chicago behind 33 points from Thomas.

The Bulls were the No. 3 seed in 1990 and dumped the second-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals. The Pistons entered as the defending champions and again the East’s top seed. The home team won every game in the series, and Detroit ended it with a 93-74 Game 7 victory en route to a second straight championship.

The last dance between Zeke and MJ came in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were now the No. 3 seed behind the top-seeded Bulls. Chicago swept Detroit in a series made famous for Thomas’ walking off rather than acknowledging the changing of the guard in the East and the NBA.

Will Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas ever mend fences? Who knows? While Jordan finished with six rings to Thomas’s two, Thomas had the head-to-head edge.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Stathead.

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