Friends turned to foes when the Pistons met the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1988 NBA Finals, which marked a bit of a turning point in a complicated relationship. But while the two point guards competed fiercely during the course of a seven-game series, Johnson had nothing but praise for Thomas after Zeke put together one of the most memorable performances in league history in Game 6.
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas defined the point guard position in the 1980s
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas had different styles.
As a 6-foot-9 point guard, Johnson revolutionized the position. He had the athleticism of a guard but could also defend every position on the floor. His flair and exceptional playmaking in transition defined the Showtime era, but they also made him an anomaly of sorts.
Thomas dominated more as a pure point guard. He had one of the best handles in league history and showed a sense of fearlessness in getting to the basket. Zeke relied more on quickness and ability to change directions, though he still had excellent court vision.
Though they played the game differently, both men shared a certain thing in common: They won.
Johnson won five NBA titles during the 1980s. Thomas and the Pistons needed time to get over the Boston Celtics hump, but they earned three straight Finals berths between 1988 and 1990, winning two titles in 1989 and 1990. In some ways, Thomas’ success deserves amplifying because of all the elite talents he had to beat to reach the top.
Indeed, Thomas’ will to win rivaled that of Magic and most other NBA legends. Johnson saw Zeke’s drive play out on the floor when the all-time greats met in the 1988 Finals.
Thomas scored 43 points after spraining his ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals
Isiah Thomas and the Pistons had a 3-2 series lead against Magic and the Lakers heading into Game 6 at the Staples Center, but they soon found their chances crumpled on the ground in a heap.
Thomas almost single-handedly brought Detroit back into Game 6 by scoring 14 points early in the third quarter. But with under five minutes to play in the quarter, he landed poorly on his right ankle. The Pistons called timeout, and suddenly things looked quite bleak.
However, Zeke had a surprise in store for Johnson, the Lakers, and everyone watching around the world.
Thomas reentered the game after just 35 seconds. Despite clearly being hobbled, he scored 11 more points in the period, finishing with 25 in the third quarter. He showed immense grit, miraculously making his way up and down the floor with a pronounced limp and making numerous off-balance shots to keep Detroit in stride.
Unfortunately for Pistons fans, Thomas’ heroics went for naught. After pouring in 43 points to go with eight assists and six steals, Zeke could only once and ice his leg after Detroit lost a one-point heartbreaker.
At this point in his career, Thomas already embraced the villain role as leader of the “Bad Boys.” This is a man whose own family rooted against him. But after such an awe-inspiring performance, Johnson and all others had to give the Pistons great his flowers.
Magic said Thomas had the performance of his life
The Lakers won the game, but Magic Johnson understood that Isiah Thomas won the night.
Johnson emphatically praised his aching friend after the contest. He called it (h/t The Athletic) Thomas’ virtuoso performance, which is impressive considering the history between the two and the countless hours they spent together on the floor.
“He played the greatest game I’ve seen him play, ever.”–Magic Johnson (1988) on Isiah Thomas, via The Athletic
Such a performance came at a significant cost.
A banged-up Thomas tried to gut it out in Game 7, but he felt more limited by additional swelling in the ankle. Johnson and the Lakers won the contest and the title.
Still, Thomas’ steely resolve earned him the ultimate praise from Magic. Perhaps it manifested good karma, too, because Zeke and the Pistons swept Johnson and the Lakers the following year.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.