Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons constantly sought a mental edge over their opponents with their outwardly physical style of play. They weren’t afraid to exploit the rules and push the boundaries of the game. Zeke and his teammates were especially aggressive against a Boston Celtics team that could be every bit as intimidating both physically and psychologically.
The Celtics constantly served as the Pistons’ roadblock in the Eastern Conference. Detroit looked to intimidate Larry Bird and Co. to try and get over the hump, which led to the occasional brawl between the two sides. One such altercation resulted in longtime Celtics commentator Johnny Most breaching journalistic ethics and lambasting Thomas and the Bad Boys.
Isiah Thomas and the Pistons posed the Celtics’ strongest challenge in the 1980s
The Boston Celtics were a dominant force in the Eastern Conference for much of the 1980s, winning three NBA championships between 1981 and 1986. But they’d soon face an imposing challenge courtesy of Isiah Thomas and the Pistons.
Thomas helped make the Pistons more respectable when Detroit selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. The arrival of head coach Chuck Daly in 1983 elevated the standard further, with eventual additions such as Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman helping to enhance the franchise’s competitiveness.
Through sound drafting and offseason acquisitions, the Pistons built a team capable of challenging the Celtics. Detroit pushed the defending champions to seven games during the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and might have won that series if not for Thomas’ ill-timed inbounds pass at the end of Game 5.
One year later, the Pistons were finally ready to dethrone Boston. Detroit beat the Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, taking control of the rivalry and charting a course for the creation of one of the NBA’s best dynasties.
The cultivation of the “Bad Boy” image appeared to play a role in the Pistons’ rise to the top. But the Celtics were not always keen on playing that style as they prepared to cede their crown. Detroit managed to fluster the even-keeled Bird on multiple occasions and even had a legendary Celtics announcer crying bloody murder during a scuffle in the 1987 playoffs.
Johnny Most ripped Zeke and the Bad Boys after a fight between Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer
Game 3 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals marks the night Larry Bird lost his patience with the Bad Boy Pistons. It’s also when longtime Celtics radio play-by-play man Johnny Most lost his marbles on the headset.
Bird already had a bit of a back-and-forth with the Pistons in the media, especially Detroit center Bill Laimbeer. For his part, Laimbeer never seemed to care what other teams thought of him, least of all the rival Celtics.
So when Bird went up for a layup during a Pistons blowout win, Laimbeer didn’t hesitate. He clotheslined Larry Legend, who retaliated by throwing punches. The two teams went at it, with Rodman again challenging Bird after the three-time MVP threw the ball at Laimbeer. Thomas appeared to elevate the temperature of the situation by smiling at Bird and chiding his Celtics teammates.
Meanwhile, Most had quite a few things to say on commentary. He absolutely ripped into the Bad Boys and labeled the incident a “typical, disgusting display” by the Pistons before singling out Thomas.
Most essentially admits he’s out of line in outwardly criticizing Thomas as part of such an emphatic rant. But he didn’t seem to care about leaving ethics at the door.
Laimbeer and frontcourt mate Rick Mahorn are often thought of as the guys who set the physical tone for Bad Boys as the rim protectors and enforcers.
However, as Most’s rant suggested, there was also a perception that Isiah Thomas was the true ringleader and mastermind behind the Pistons’ style of play.
Isiah Thomas was the face of the Pistons and never shied away from confrontation
Given that Isiah Thomas was Detroit’s franchise player, it’s hard not to think of him as the man responsible for rallying his teammates around the “Bad Boy” image. He also showed no fear in confronting big men.
Thomas got into fisticuffs with former Chicago Bulls center Bill Cartwright in 1989. He even threw hands at Mahorn, his former teammate, during a game the following year.
Zeke himself bought into the persona. As the face of the organization, he took much of the blame for the decision to walk off the floor rather than congratulate the Bulls in the final seconds of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. He seemed to lean on the Pistons being disrespected by the rest of the NBA.
For observers like Most, however, the Bad Boys’ way of playing the game made it difficult to give them the respect they certainly deserved.