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Much has been made of Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons walking off the court prematurely after the Chicago Bulls swept the Pistons in the first round of the 1991 playoffs. In ESPN’s The Last Dance, that moment was highlighted and triggered some animosity between Thomas and Michael Jordan. During the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, the tables were turned a bit when Thomas eliminated the Boston Celtics, who left the court early as well. Former Celtics star Kevin McHale recently explained why that happened.

Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons, 1991 playoffs

It was always a battle when the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons met in the late 1980s and early 90s, and the intensity always picked up during the playoffs. The relationship between the Bad Boys of Detroit and Jordan’s Bulls was already sour as the Bulls always felt the Pistons were extra physical, or dirty to be more blunt, when trying to contain Jordan. That intensified when the Pistons walked off the court with about eight seconds left as the Bulls knocked them out of the playoffs in 1991.

Thomas gave his version of what happened. “That was the only time that I think I’d ever been swept in a series. I was normally the one doing the sweeping,” Thomas said. “Their time had arrived, and ours was over. As we’re coming out of the game, Laimbeer said: ‘We’re not shaking their hands.’ … Knowing what we know now, in the aftermath of what took place, I think all of us would’ve stopped and said congratulations like they do now.”

Jordan didn’t buy it. “Whatever (Isiah) says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. (He’s had) time enough to think about it, or the reaction of the public that’s changed his perspective. … You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an as***le. All you have to do is go back to us losing in Game 7 (the previous year). “I shook everybody’s hand. Two years in a row, we shook their hands when they beat us.”

Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons, 1988 playoffs

The 1988 NBA Eastern Conference Finals featured the top two teams in the conference. The Boston Celtics were the top seed after finishing the season with a 57-25 record, while the Detroit Pistons were 54-28. The Celtics were looking to reach the NBA Finals for the fifth straight season.

The Pistons, playing on the road in Game 1, were in for a challenge as they entered the series having lost 21 straight games at the Boston Garden. The teams already had met several times in previous postseasons and had found themselves in tight, physical playoff battles. Detroit finally broke through in Boston and pulled out a victory in Game 1.

Kevin McHale was dominant in the series, scoring 32 points in Game 3 and 33 in Game 6. The Celtics, after, tying the series at two games apiece with a 79-78 win in Detroit, blew a 16-point led at home in the fifth game and lost 102-96 to fall behind 3-2 in the series. The Celtics, despite McHale’s heroics, lost the game and the series, falling 95-90 in Game 6.

Kevin McHale explains Celtics premature walk-off


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Just as the Detroit Pistons did when the Chicago Bulls eliminated them from the postseason, the Boston Celtics also left the court prematurely. When the Pistons ousted the Celtics 4-2 in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, Celtics players were headed to the locker room before the final buzzer sounded. Isiah Thomas pointed that out during The Last Dance and said it was no big deal. “Adrian Dantley was shooting a free throw, and the Boston Celtics were walking off during the game,” Thomas said “I grabbed (Kevin) McHale, and then he stopped as he was walking off the floor. That’s how they left the floor. And to us, that was OK.”

McHale, who had a very good series against the Pistons, explained why the Celtics headed out early. “Someone told us to get out of there before they stormed the court,” said McHale to The Boston Herald. “You had a really long walk to get out of there. It wasn’t like the Garden or other places. You had a hundred yards probably before you got to the entry way to the locker rooms.”

McHale did say he spoke to Thomas as he left the court. “I knew Isiah from the Pan-Am Games, and Zeke and I have always been friends,” said McHale, who added he was enjoying The Last Dance. “He said something to me, and I said, ‘Hey, man, look, it feels just as bad to lose in The Finals as it does to lose in the Eastern Conference finals.’ I said, ‘This (expletive)’s not over with. You guys got another series to play, so don’t celebrate too much.’ I said that then I walked off. That was just my advice to him as a friend.”