The Detroit Pistons are a storied franchise that dates back to 1957 when they were located in Fort Wayne. Since then, the Pistons have played thousands and thousands of games in the NBA. In this article today, I will take a look at the 10 most important wins to the history of the Franchise, as well as explain how that game had such a big impact. Most of the wins on these lists come during 2 distinct time periods when the Pistons ruled the NBA, the Bad Boys era of the late 80s and early 90s, as well as the Goin’ To Work Pistons of the early 2000s.
1. Game 4 1989 NBA Finals
The Bad Boys fought long and hard to reach the top of the NBA, fighting through two dynasties and stopping a 3rd from getting started. The Bad Boys defined the tough style of basketball of the late 80s and early 90s and won championships along the way. The Pistons ended the Celtics dynasty in 1988 in the Eastern Conference finals but fell short in the finals against the Lakers in 7.
The Pistons played the 1989 season with a chip on their shoulder, firmly believing that they were the best team in basketball. They cruised through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, before squaring off with Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Conference Finals. After a hard-fought series that established the infamous “Jordan Rules”, the Pistons were on their way back to the finals to play the Lakers once again. This time, the Pistons dominated the series from the opening whistle. The Pistons beat down on the Lakers, especially after Magic Johnson was ruled out of the series after Game 2.
Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas led the way on the offensive end, while the frontcourt stifled the Lakers offense completely. In game 4, the Lakers jumped out to a 15-point lead and looked like they were extending the series. However, Dumars had other plans, He began to torch the Lakers in the 3rd quarter, leading their roaring comeback. The Pistons ended up winning 105-97, giving Detroit their first-ever NBA championship.
2. Game 5 2004 NBA Finals
The Pistons were heavy underdogs entering the Finals facing a Lakers team that featured two superstars, Shaq and Kobe. However, the Goin’ To Work Pistons were unfazed by the firepower on the other side of the court and proceeded to dominate the Lakers and defeat them with a Gentleman’s Sweep in 5 games.
Kobe and Shaq struggled mightily with the strong and organized team defense of the Pistons. Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton took turns on Kobe Bryant, trying to make his life a living hell 24/7. Ben Wallace faced head-to-head with Shaq down low and was able to neutralize a big part of his offense while staying out of foul trouble, which was massive playing against Shaq.
In Game 5, Detroit’s defense proved to be the deciding factor once again as Ben Wallace neutralized Shaq, forcing the other players on the roster to beat them. Wallace also pulled down 22 boards, making it one of his best individual performances ever. The offense was led once again by Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton. Billups went on to win Finals MVP for his performance, but everyone on the team contributed heavily on the way to the Pistons 3rd victory.
3. Game 5 1990 NBA Finals
In 1990, everyone expected the Pistons to win once again. They had to fend off some other contenders in the East like the Bulls and Cavs, but they were still the best team in basketball. They bullied their way through the playoffs until they reached the Eastern Conference Finals where they squared off with MJ and the Bulls again. After a hard-fought 7 game series in the Conference Finals, the Pistons returned to the finals.
The Pistons were heavy favorites coming into the series, and showed that they were the better team throughout, despite the close scorelines. Isiah Thomas was the catalyst for the team once again, as he earned Finals MVP for his offensive performance in the series.
With seconds ticking down in Game Five, Vinnie Johnson got the ball from Isiah, dribbled, deked, and jumped. He let go one of his line drive shots and it was nothing but net. Only 0.7 seconds remained on the clock. The Pistons won and finished off a three-game sweep in Portland to take the NBA Finals, 4-1. Johnson scored 10 points in the last 3:47 of the game to cap a furious comeback for the Bad Boys as they won their second straight title.
4. Game 2 2004 Eastern Conference Finals
After Detroit lost the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, they desperately needed a win over the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to build momentum before heading home. The Pistons looked destined to be good but not great. The previous season ended in a sweep at the hands of the Nets and the Pacers appeared to be the new obstacle.
Prior to the game, Rasheed Wallace guaranteed a victory, which has come to be known as the “GuaranSheed”. However, Wallace’s words would have meant nothing without the biggest individual defensive play in franchise history, thanks to Tayshaun Prince. The Pistons were up 2 with 30 seconds left when Billups turned the ball over to Reggie Miller, who seemed to have an easy fast-break bucket. However, as Miller reached the Pistons free throw line, Tayshaun Prince took off on a sprint from the other side of the court and pinned Reggie Miller’s shot off the backboard. The Pistons would hold on to win thanks to Prince’s efforts, and would ultimately handle Indiana on the way to the Finals. “The Block” was the turning point for the 2004 championship run and the Pistons would have most likely been sent home by the Pacers without that play.
5. Game 7 1990 Eastern Conference Finals
Michael Jordan and the Bulls were ready to take a step and take over for the Pistons as kings of the East behind their dynamic duo of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls had beaten the Pistons multiple times during the regular season, and were ready to avenge their Conference Finals loss from a year prior. However, the Pistons had other plans.
The Bulls pushed the Pistons to a Game Seven, but it was played at The Palace and Detroit was still too much for their rivals at the other end of I-94. The Pistons held the Bulls to just 33 points in the first half as they soared to a pretty easy win, 93-74. Isiah Thomas was all over the place, scoring 21 points with 11 assists, 8 rebounds, two steals, and a block. Scottie Pippen famously sat out of this crucial game due to a Migraine, which helped propel the Pistons to victory.
This put Detroit in the NBA finals in back-to-back years, facing Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons made quick work of the Blazers on their way to cementing the Bad Boys as one of the best teams of all-time.
6. Game 6 1988 Eastern Conference Finals
After agonizing losses to the Celtics in the 1985 and 1987 playoffs, the Pistons were facing their nemesis again in 1988. But this time Detroit was ready to teach the veteran Celtics a lesson. They split the first four games before Detroit won Game Five in overtime 102-96 at the Boston Garden. In Game Six back at the Silverdome, the Pistons finally vanquished Boston, beating them with a defensive hammering in the third quarter when they held Boston to only 17 points. Dennis Rodman pestered Larry Bird and held him to just 16 points. Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards came up huge off the bench, scoring 24 and 15 points.
The Pistons went on to face the Lakers in the NBA finals, where they narrowly lost in 7 games. The win over the Celtics proved to the Pistons that they were the kings of the East, and had a 3-year reign over the conference from 1988 to 1990.
7. Game 6 1988 NBA Finals
The Pistons held a 3-2 lead in their first-ever Finals appearance as a franchise, and had the opportunity to close the series out in L.A. Magic and Isiah went back and forth all series, as the two star point guard tried to will their team to victory. In game 6, however, Isaiah had a performance for the history books.
Isiah poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter on a highly sprained ankle as he single-handedly drove the Pistons toward a possible title. With seven seconds left the Pistons led by one point when Kareem backed in for one of his patented skyhooks defended by Bill Laimbeer. The official blew his whistle and called Laimbeer for a “phantom foul” (replays showed that he never touched Kareem’s shooting arm). The Lakers made three free throws down the stretch and won the game to force a game seven, which they won. But Isiah’s 43 points and amazing play down the stretch showed how “big” the little point guard could play in key games.
8. Game 7 2003 Eastern Conference First Round
The Pistons had a chance to win their first playoff series since the Bad Boys era but had to get through Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic. In the rubber match of the series, Chauncey Billups had his coming out party as a member of the Detroit Pistons as he led them to a key series victory for the history of the Goin To Work Pistons.
Billups was the primary focus of Orlando’s defensive efforts, but that only seemed to make him play better instead of slowing down. Billups erupted for 37 points and 5 assists as the Pistons cruised their way past the Magic. The Pistons would ultimately reach the Eastern Conference Finals before being swept by the Nets, but the playoff experience and series victories allowed the core members of the team gain confidence in the playoffs, which led to the NBA title the following season.
9. Game 5 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals
This is the game that officially made Chauncey Billups “Mr. Big Shot”. Billups’ career with the Pistons was littered with clutch moments as he defined himself as one of the best players in the NBA with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. The Pistons were tied with the New Jersey Nets as 2 games apiece and looked to be losing the momentum in the series. Other than the Pacers, the Nets were the Pistons’ biggest challenge in the East and were hungry to reach the finals again after losing in prior years with the same roster.
However, Billups did what he had to do to save the team. The Pistons trailed by 3, 88-85, as Chauncey brought the ball up the court with 5 seconds left. Billups moved quickly, but under control, and pulled up from the right-wing from about 30 to 35 feet, and swished the shot to send the game to overtime. The Pistons ultimately lost in overtime, but this was the game where Mr. Big Shot was born and turned the tide of the series despite the loss.
10. Game 5 1984 Eastern Conference First Round
In terms of importance to the franchise, this game did not lead to a finals victory like many other of the wins on this list, but it was the birth of Detroit’s best player ever, Isaiah Thomas. In the deciding game of the series, Thomas entered a legendary scoring duel with the New York Knicks star point guard, Bernard King. Both point guards attacked each other mercilessly on the offensive end, trading baskets throughout the game.
The Pistons ultimately lost in OT because of King’s 46 point outburst, but the Pistons could return home knowing they had a star. Thomas did everything in his power to carry the team over the edge, scoring 35 points and dishing 12 assists, but it was not enough to carry the Pistons to the second round. For the series, Thomas averaged 21.4 points and 11 assists per game, showing he was the real deal at Point Guard.