Rewind: 1988 NBA Finals—Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons


After years of mediocre ratings and audiences, the National Basketball Association had finally secured a spot amongst the most well-known professional sports around the globe. Leading up to the 1988 season, the NBA had turned into must-see TV. This was highlighted by an era of childhood heroes that defined the league that we see today. To no surprise, the 1988 NBA Finals between Los Angeles and Detroit lived up to the hype and became a keystone for new viewers worldwide. Without a doubt, this series was one to remember.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, one particular NBA team had established an incredible legacy: the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning eight world championships in a 15-year span, the city of Los Angeles and its beloved Lakers sat atop the sports world as arguably the most successful dynasty of the era. Although the team had considerable opposition from the rival Boston Celtics, the Lakers organization had much to celebrate. Led by program legends Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, this LA superteam boasted hall-of-fame talent for upwards of an entire decade. As the royalty of the Western Conference, the Lakers breezed through the 1988 playoffs and returned to the grand stage of the NBA Finals once again.

Riddled with talent, LA was the clear favorite to defend its crown. Although Magic and Kareem were the focal points for opposing teams, the two studs had plenty of weapons surrounding them on the court. Guard Byron Scott had played in all but one game in the regular season, posting an impressive 21 points per outing. On top of that, forward pair James Worthy and A.C. Green combined for 30 points and 15 rebounds on average, giving this Laker lineup multiple dimensions for its dominance. Head coach Pat Riley certainly had a stacked roster, and it showed up in the win column. 

Hailing from Detroit, the opposing Pistons came into this matchup appearing in the first NBA Finals in franchise history. After battling the Boston Celtics for multiple seasons, Detroit had finally taken control of the Eastern Conference. While the Pistons had their fair share of talent, the team was known for its extremely rough and physical style of play. Embracing themselves as the villains of the league, this Pistons squad was arguably the most controversial sports team in America. Through all of the brutal flagrant fouls and numerous ejections that Detroit endured, the team had rightfully earned an unquestionably memorable persona: the Bad Boys. 

Since drafting its franchise centerpiece—point guard Isaiah Thomas—in 1981, Detroit had successfully built around the star, adding names like Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, and Rick Mahorn into the conversation. Isaiah in conjunction with fellow guards Joe Dumars and Adrian Dantley saw this trio put up a combined 60 points per game. This tremendous backcourt scoring allowed forwards Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer to average a double-double apiece on a nightly basis. Adding an underdog mindset and the team’s infamous, savage-like style of play to all of this on-court production, the Pistons were a notably frightening team to play against. 

As the teams lined up for game one, neither side could possibly envision the chaos that would ensue in this series. Having to start out on the road, the Pistons did not miss a beat. With a huge 34-point boost from Adrian Dantley, Detroit did not trail all game and came out with a 105-93 victory. However, anybody that watched the Lakers could probably guess that the team would be able to get it together. They did just that, as four players posted double figures in a dominating game two wins. The 108-96 landslide showed that either team had a legitimate shot to take home the trophy. 

This is where things get interesting. Returning home for game three, the Pistons looked to break the series tie and gather momentum. After a back-and-forth battle in the first two quarters, tensions flared in the second half. Isaiah Thomas got into multiple scuffles with Magic Johnson, which only amplified the intensity of the game. Later on in the third quarter, Magic would receive a technical foul for throwing a deliberate elbow at Isaiah on a drive to the hoop. Clearly beaten up, Thomas had to buckle up and will his team to a win. However, a 19-point performance in the fourth quarter by Laker forward James Worthy swung the series lead back to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the Pistons showed tremendous strength in game four. Isaiah went for 19 points and 12 assists in a 111-86 blowout. Adrian Dantley posted yet another 20 plus point performance, as Detroit continued to show resiliency. 

With the series knotted up at 2-2, the winner of game five would be in the driver’s seat. Luckily enough for Pistons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with an injury in the second quarter. This proved to be monumental, as Detroit began to dominate the paint. Outrebounding the Lakers by 19, the Pistons cruised to a 104-94 victory. To take home the hardware; however, the team would need to escape with a win in the hostile environment that was Los Angeles. 

After being tied at halftime in game six, the Lakers were up against the wall. Despite this, the tides began to turn after Isaiah Thomas went down with a gruesome ankle injury. On the sidelines, camera shots displayed the critical condition of Thomas’s foot, as he could barely fit his shoe back on. Regardless, Isaiah insisted on playing. Hobbling around for the rest of the game, the point guard put on a show. In what might be the most inspiring performance of all time, Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter. As he continued to light it up in the fourth, LA needed to rebuttal in order to keep its season alive. Down the stretch, a couple of controversial calls by the referees gave the Lakers much-needed chances at the free-throw line. Converting on these opportunities, Los Angeles was able to outlast Detroit, winning by a single point. Although he had played his heart out, Isaiah and the Pistons would need to wait another night to close it out.

Having to head back out on the court with his bad ankle, Isaiah’s efforts in game seven were just simply not enough. James Worthy scored 36 points en route to a clutch game seven triumph. Alas, the Pistons had fallen just short of a historic upset. Although the team had much to look forward to in the future, this defeat definitely stung the heart of all Michiganders.

Whether it was the benches clearing, clutch shots being hit, or legendary performers breaking out, the 1988 NBA Finals was nothing short of spectacular. The matchup between the “Golden Boys” of the league and the “Bad Boys” proved to be an outstanding series in a battle of grit and toughness. Filled with basketball legends and storied franchises, the contest between the Pistons and the Lakers displayed the true beauty of basketball.