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On This Date in Sports June 21, 1988: Team of the 80s

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Los Angeles Lakers become the first team in nearly two decades to win two straight NBA Championships as they beat the Detroit Pistons 108-105 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at The Forum. James Worthy records a Triple-Double with 36 points with 16 rebounds and ten assists and is named NBA Finals MVP, while Pistons guard Isiah Thomas played valiantly with a sprained ankle.

The 1980s were the decade of Showtime, as the Los Angeles Lakers were the NBA’s top team winning five championships and playing in the NBA Finals eight times in ten years. After winning the NBA Championship in 1987, Lakers Coach Pat Riley guaranteed that his team would repeat. The Lakers appeared to be well on the way to making good on Riley’s pledge after posting the best record in the NBA at 62-20. The Lakers were expected to roll their way to the finals again and got off to a quick start, sweeping the San Antonio Spurs. However, in the second round, they ran into trouble as they were pushed to a seventh game by the Utah Jazz, as John Stockton and Karl Malone established themselves as bonafide stars. The Lakers were also pushed to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, as the home team won all seven games.

In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons, coached by Chuck Daly, were a team on the rise, pushing the Boston Celtics to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1987. Nicknamed “The Bad Boys” for their rough physical style of play, the Pistons finished with the second-best record in the East at 54-28. In the playoffs, the Pistons survived a five-game battle with the Washington Bullets, with the home team winning all five games. In the second round, a new rivalry was born as the Pistons shut down MVP Michael Jordan and beat the Chicago Bulls in five games. After beating the Bulls, the Pistons faced their biggest challenge in the Boston Celtics, who again were the top team in the East during the regular season. Taking advantage of the older Celtics, who were coming off a tough seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Pistons stole Game 1 at the Boston Garden 104-96. After the Celtics bounced back with a 119-116 win in Game 2, the series shifted to the Pontiac Silverdome, where record grounds backed the Pistons all season. Detroit was able to take control of the series with a 98-94 win but found themselves even at two games apiece, heading back to Boston after the Celtics recorded a 79-78 win in Game 4. Back in Boston, the Pistons came up clutch in Game 5, outlasting the tiring Celtics 102-96 as they went on to win the series in six games, wrapping it up with a 95-90 win at home in Game 6.

It was the Pistons' first trip to the NBA Finals since 1956 when they played in Fort Wayne. The Lakers, meanwhile, were in the NBA’s ultimate showcase for the seventh time in nine years with a different opponent after facing the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics three times in the 1980s. In Game 1, in Los Angeles, the Pistons came out as the fresher team, jumping out to a 57-40 lead in the first half as Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas hit a pair of thee pointers in the final four second of the second quarter. The Pistons would win the game 105-93, as Adrian Dantley led the way with 34 points. The Lakers got back on track with a 108-86 win, as James Worthy had 26, Bryon Scott had 24, and Magic Johnson had 23 points. As the series shifted to Detroit, the Lakers regained control winning Game 3 by a score of 99-86 as Worthy led the way with 24 points, while Magic Johnson had 18 points, 14 assists, and six rebounds while playing with the flu. The Pistons turned the pressure up on Magic and Lakers in Game 4 and got the three-time NBA Finals MVP in early foul trouble. With Magic on the bench, the Pistons blew the game open, winning 111-86 to even the series. With an NBA Finals record of 41,372 fans on hand in the Silverdome's final NBA game, the Lakers led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came out hard and fast, scoring the game’s first 12 points. However, the Pistons quickly found their shooting range and controlled things the rest of the way, taking a 59-50 lead at the half on the way to a 104-94 win to put themselves one win away from their first-ever NBA Championship. Dantley again was Detroit’s top scorer with 25 points, while Joe Dumars had 19.

Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers' backs were firmly against the wall as the hungry Pistons went in for the kill. Game 6 would end up as one of the greatest games in NBA history as the Pistons and Lakers battled back and forth. Trailing 56-48 in the third quarter Isiah Thomas looked to carry the Pistons to the championship scoring his team’s next 14 points. However, with 3:44 left in the quarter, Thomas rolled his ankle. Thomas scored 11 points playing through pain, as Detroit went into the final quarter with the lead powered by a 15-5. It was all Isiah Thomas, as he set an NBA Finals record with 25 points in the third quarter. The rest of the game was tight throughout as the intensity kicked up a notch. Thomas would end the game with a game-high 43 points as the Pistons held a 102-99 lead with one minute left after Dennis Rodman made a big defensive play blocking a shot by James Worthy and setting up Joe Dumars for a pair of free throws. The Lakers would cut the lead to one on a shot by Byron Scott; after failing to score on their end of the floor, the Lakers took the lead with 14 seconds left after a controversial foul call against Bill Laimbeer gave Kareem Abdul-Jabbar two free throws. Looking to get the lead back, Dumars missed after Detroit nearly mishandled the inbound, with Dennis Rodman and Byron Scott nearly got into the fight going after the rebound. Scott would miss both free throws, as the Pistons' half-court shot was off the mark, with the Lakers holding on for a 103-102 win.

Coming into Game 7, the question of how would Isiah Thomas respond, playing on a sore ankle he injured in Game 6. Thomas was seen limping badly throughout warmups and likely would never have played if there were not so much on the line. Before the game began, Thomas and Magic Johnson met at half court and exchanged an awkward kiss. Once the ball was tipped, the pleasantries dispensed, as Thomas playing through pain, scored ten points in the first half with the Pistons building a 52-47 lead at the half. However, after halftime Isiah Thomas’s ankle swelled, forcing him to sit most of the second half. The Lakers took advantage, scoring 36 points in the third quarter to take the lead, as James Worthy had a monster game, scoring 36 points with 16 rebounds and ten assists. The Lakers eventually built a 90-75 lead in the fourth quarter as Michael Cooper began to take apart the Pistons from three-point range. Facing desperation, Pistons coach Chuck Daly switched to a quicker lineup and got his team back into the game. The move worked as the Pistons clawed to within two points with 1:17 left. After a foul by Dennis Rodman, Magic Johnson hit just one of two free throws, giving Detroit a chance to tie the game. However, the Pistons played sloppy ball, as Byron Scott extended the lead to 105-100. The Pistons remained pesky over the final seconds as Cooper gave them some life after missing a pair of free throws. Joe Dumars cut the deficit to three with a layup, while Worthy made just one of his two from the line. As the seconds ticked down, Bill Laimbeer made one last push hitting a three-pointer to cut the deficit to one, but Magic Johnson broke the Pistons press with a full-length pass to A.C. Green, who hit a layup to close out the 108-105 win. Laimbeer tried to get the ball to Thomas for one last desperate attempt to tie the game, but the ball was lost on a collision with Magic Johnson as fans rushed the floor to celebrate the Lakers championship.

James Worthy was named NBA Finals MVP for his big numbers throughout the series. His Triple-Double in Game 7 would be the only Triple-Double of his Hall of Fame career. The Lakers, who had now had five championships in the decade, became the first team since the Celtics in 1969 to win two straight NBA Championships. The two teams met again in 1989, with the Pistons winning in four straight.