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The Detroit Pistons finally dethroned the Boston Celtics in 1988. Boston had been to four straight NBA Finals and was king of the Eastern Conference for much of the decade. The Pistons, led by veteran guard Isiah Thomas, inched closer and finally got over the hump during the 1988 postseason. That probably should’ve happened the previous year.

While many refer to it as Larry Bird’s steal in a crucial Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, it could very well be labeled as Isiah Thomas’ turnover. Thomas’ blunder with five seconds remaining hit him hard. He got over it with the help of Celtics legend Bill Russell.

Larry Bird picked off an Isiah Thomas pass that changed the entire outcome of the 1987 ECF

Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons dribbles the ball against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game circa 1990 at The Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

The ’87 Eastern Conference Finals meeting between the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons was tied at two games apiece as the teams squared off in an intense Game 5 in Boston. The Pistons had Game 5 all but wrapped up, holding a 107-106 lead and having possession of the ball with five seconds remaining.

While many Pistons players expected the team to call a timeout, Thomas hurried over to the sideline to put the ball in play. He lobbed a pass intended for Pistons center Bill Laimbeer, positioned just inside the paint near Boston’s basket. As the ball hung up in the air, Bird stepped in front, picked off the pass, and threw a quick pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson. DJ laid the ball in for the game-winning basket.

Boston won 108-107 and headed to Detroit for Game 6 with an improbable 3-2 series lead. Although the Pistons held serve at home by winning Game 6, the Celtics sealed the series with a victory in Game 7, earning their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.

The Pistons/Celtics series was heated. In Game 3, Laimbeer, known for being an instigator, took down Bird with a hard foul underneath the basket, earning the Detroit center an ejection. Bird, too, was tossed after he fired the basketball at Laimbeer in retaliation.

In Game 5, Celtics center Robert Parish, seemingly fed up with Laimbeer’s antics, took down Laimbeer with several punches, knocking him to the floor. No foul was called, although Parish was suspended for Game 6 for the beatdown.

Bird’s steal (or Isiah’s miscue, if you prefer) clearly was the difference in the series.

Thomas recently explained how he got over being so distraught from the play

During a recent appearance on the Cedric Maxwell Podcast, Thomas spoke with the former Celtics forward about his devastating turnover in Game 5 of the ’87 conference finals. He admitted he was crushed, and he didn’t get a whole lot of help from his teammates.

“My wife and I were driving home the other day, and we were listening to ESPN Radio,” Thomas laughed as he told Maxwell. “Out of the blue, that’s one of the promotions.”

Thomas admitted that play weighed heavily on him.

“Max, that was lingering on me,” Thomas said. “We go in the locker room. You know that locker room. Y’all only had two showers that worked for us. Now, I’m sitting right next to the shower. I don’t want to go in there because I know I’m going to get my ass beat up in there. So I’m waiting and trying to be last, so I can be in the shower by myself.

“Everybody who walked by me — I mean EVERYBODY who walked by me — this is what you hear, ‘Damn,’ and they walk into the shower. I don’t get no pat on the back or ‘It’s gonna be all right.’ Everybody just walks by and it’s just ‘Damn,’ and they go right by.

“Now, we get on the bus. I’m crushed, really crushed. We get on the bus, then on the plane, and John Salley is the first one who taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, man, it’s gonna be all right.’ Now, I’m so pissed, I’m taking it all out on him, ‘What you mean, man?’

Thomas was so crushed that he didn’t go to practice the next day.

“Remember, I’m the guy that’s never made a mistake,” he said. “I’m the guy that’s made the big shots. I’m the most trusted guy on the team, the dependable one. Grade school, high school, college, you can’t find nowhere where Isiah Thomas messed up the game. This is the biggest moment of my career, and I failed. I didn’t know how to handle this. I’m ashamed. I don’t want to go to practice, and I’m just lying in bed.

“My wife comes in. The phone rings. She said you got a phone call, and I go, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I think you should take this call.’

Thomas couldn’t believe who was on the other end of the line.

“‘Hey, this is Bill Russell,'” Thomas recalled hearing. “‘Everybody falls off the horse, You need to get up and get back on the horse. It’s gonna be all right.'”

Sure enough, the Celtics legend was right. Although the Pistons didn’t win in ’87, they eliminated the Celtics in 1988. They reached the NBA Finals for the first of three straight appearances. The Pistons won championships in 1989 and 1990.