After a long and painful struggle, Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons finally captured their first NBA championship in 1989. Just one season later, they were on the cusp of becoming a legitimate NBA dynasty. But while Thomas was the eminent star of those Pistons teams, he needed a man nicknamed “Microwave” to help put an end to any remaining skepticism and cement the franchise’s place in the history books.
Isiah Thomas and the Pistons won the NBA title in 1989, but many felt it came with an askerisk
For years, Isiah Thomas and the Pistons suffered heartache, especially at the hands of the vaunted Boston Celtics. When Detroit finally seized the Eastern Conference from the C’s in 1988, it endured another gut-wrenching loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Things changed in the 1988-1989 season. The Pistons steamrolled through the regular season and outlasted Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals to set up a rematch with the Lakers. Detroit demolished LA in four games. The dominant victory should have been a statement to the rest of the NBA. Only, it wasn’t.
The narrative surrounding Detroit’s triumph shifted from the overwhelming nature of the victory to whether that title should have an asterisk. Injuries decimated the Lakers in that series, with Bryon Scott not logging a single minute and Magic Johnson playing just five minutes in Game 3 before missing all of Game 4.
What was the legitimacy of the Pistons’ title? Were they the best team in the NBA, or did they get lucky? Those questions loomed over the organization as Isiah Thomas and the Pistons prepared to defend their crown the following season.
Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson erased all doubt about the Pistons and etched their dynasty status in stone
The Pistons struggled out of the gate to start the 1989-90 season, going just 13-10 to start the season. However, Detroit got hot.
Head coach Chuck Daly inserted Dennis Rodman into the starting lineup, giving the Pistons an imposing defensive front. Isiah Thomas saw a decline in scoring efficiency, but his assist numbers jumped to 9.4 from 8.3 dimes the previous season. Joe Dumars added some scoring at the 2-guard, and Mark Aguirre continued to show the Adrian Dantley trade had its merits by providing scoring whether in the first unit or off the bench.
Detroit went 46-13 the rest of the way and withstood a furious charge from Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. They had a chance to win back-to-back titles, but things looked a bit dire at the worst of times.
Even though the Pistons took a 3-1 lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals, they were in serious trouble. Dumars was coping with the death of his father, while nagging injuries beset Thomas. The Blazers had been competitive in every game and threatened to mount a comeback as they took a seven-point lead with under seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
However, Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson would not let the Pistons lose their grip on the series. He scored eight points in a minute to give Detroit the lead. Portland went back up by seven when Thomas left the game with a bloody nose, only for Johnson to pour in another quick five points.
Thomas hit a clutch jumper to tie the game, but Microwave delivered the final dagger. After a Terry Porter turnover, Johnson drilled a jumper with 0.7 seconds left on the clock. The Blazers missed the ensuing game-winning try, giving the Pistons their second consecutive championship.
Johnson’s heroics served as a reminder of the kind of guy he could have been with another franchise and the invaluable role he played on those Pistons teams.
Vinnie Johnson’s role perfectly suited Isiah Thomas and the Pistons
Vinnie Johnson could never hope of being a star with the Pistons, not with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars already in the backcourt. But his willingness to play a bench playmaker role was vital for Chuck Daly.
Microwave could enter the game and score in bunches. Johnson played both guard spots, allowing Daly to rest Thomas or Dumars while infusing a defensive-minded group with shot-creation and scoring. He had the all-around skill set to be a star yet felt totally comfortable taking a slightly lesser role for a winner.
Yet Johnson delivered when called upon. The Pistons do not win Game 5 without him and might not even win the series given how tight the Blazers played them during the 1990 NBA Finals. That’s how pivotal his heroics were.
Johnson might not get the love that some of his other Bad Boys teammates have received, but he nonetheless was an integral piece of the Pistons’ dynasty.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.