Detroit Pistons legend and Bad Boy icon Isiah Thomas knows full well that Larry Bird wasn’t the only trash-talking legend on the 1980s Boston Celtics teams. In fact, Celtics forward Kevin McHale‘s banter was every bit as ruthless.
While the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers established one of the NBA’s greatest rivalries during the decade, the Eastern Conference grudge match between the C’s and Pistons was every bit as captivating, if not more ruthless. McHale, in particular, was never shy about mixing it up with Isiah or the rest of the Bad Boys.
Kevin McHale and the Celtics had multiple playoff battles with Isiah Thomas and the Pistons
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls famously had to get through the Bad Boys before winning their first NBA title. The same held for Isiah Thomas and the Pistons as they tried to overtake the Boston Celtics in the 1980s.
Thomas and the Pistons first met Kevin McHale and the Celtics in the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals, losing to Boston in six games. While the result might not have been positive, the fact that the Pistons had pushed the defending champions to six games appeared to suggest the Pistons would be viable challengers in the years to come.
However, the Pistons would have to wait their turn. After a disappointing 1985-86 season, Detroit made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1987. Lying in wait were the Celtics, fresh off another championship in 1986 and hungry to make it back-to-back titles.
This time, the Pistons pushed Boston to seven games. Detroit likely would have won the series, too, if not for Bird’s famous steal on Thomas’ inbound pass and the ensuing Dennis Johnson layup to win Game 5.
The Celtics seemed to have the Pistons’ number. For his part, McHale tried to assert psychological dominance, as well.
McHale brutally taunted Zeke during one of Detroit’s playoff losses
Kevin McHale wasn’t the most humble guy in victory.
Isiah Thomas has told multiple stories about McHale’s trash-talking exploits and his willingness to yap with Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. Zeke even said on an episode of NBA TV’s Players Only that McHale once heckled him at the end of a Pistons playoff loss.
McHale fully admitted to being a bit of a troll. He joked that he would intentionally ask where the lights were in the building during closeout games on the road.
The Celtics power forward might have talked a lot, but he could back it up with exceptional play. McHale made seven All-Star teams and six All-Defensive teams. He was a great low-post scorer with tremendous footwork on the block and routinely challenged opposing bigs and guards at the rim. Those attributes made him one of the standout players on a Celtics team that ruled the East in the 1980s.
But every dog has its day, and the Celtics would eventually have to give way to Isiah Thomas’ Pistons.
Boston eventually ceded the Eastern Conference throne to Detroit
The Celtics could only hold the Pistons off for so long.
Detroit finally got over the hump in 1988, beating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals before suffering a heartbreaking NBA Finals loss to Magic Johnson and the Lakers. Victory was not far away, though.
The Pistons again made it to the NBA Finals in 1989, this time defeating Magic’s Lakers in an emphatic sweep. Detroit would win a second consecutive title in 1990, achieving something the Celtics never did in the 1980s.
Still, there was a time when Boston reigned supreme over the Pistons. Kevin McHale always made sure to let Isiah Thomas know all about it.