It may not be 20 years ago to the day, but it’s 20 years ago to the moment.
Eastern Conference Finals. Knotted at two games apiece. Game 5 slated for the hostile home of the more experienced (read: older), favored team whose appearances in the NBA’s Final Four are commonplace. And that experienced team is poised to lock horns with a familiar foe in the NBA’s Final Two.
Sound familiar? It should, because that was the scenario in 1987 when the Pistons met the Celtics in the creaky old Boston Garden for Game 5 of their East final. The Celtics had held service in Games 1 and 2, and the Pistons did the same in Games 3 and 4. Just like this year’s tussle with the Cavaliers. Game 5 in Boston was — since it cannot possibly be written otherwise — pivotal.
The Pistons stayed with the Celtics the entire game. So much so, that they found themselves with a one-point lead — and the ball — with under ten seconds to play.
Anyone want to tell me what happened next? Anyone?
Yeah — THIS.
Then the Pistons, despite that slug in the gut, recovered to win Game 6 at the Silverdome, and gave the Celtics all they could handle again in Game 7. It was a tight affair in the Garden. Then Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson butted heads, knocking both players out of the game, and that pretty much snuffed out the Pistons’ hopes.
Such ghoulish history might not be pleasant reading today, for the comparisons between today’s Cavs and Pistons and 1987’s Pistons and Celtics might be a little too eery for comfort.
Drew Sharp, in today’s Freep, has an opinion piece titled, “There’s No Excuse For Losing to Cavaliers.” Mitch Albom, in the Chicago series, prattled on about how the Pistons were wasting energy against an inferior opponent. Sharp, too, acts as if the Pistons are playing chopped liver in this Cleveland series. Mike Stone, yesterday on the radio, whined that the Pistons of 2004 would never have let Cavs rookie Daniel Gibson score 21 points, as he did in Game 4. Yet it was the ’04 Pistons who let benchwarmers Brian Scalabrine (Nets) and Luke Walton (Lakers) go off in crucial playoff games.
Then, in the next sentence, the very same Chicken Littles will opine that nobody expects perfection, when all they seem to be doing is strongly hinting as such.
Here are the facts: the Pistons are 10-4 in the postseason, and are in a best-of-three with the Cavs, with two games in Detroit. No time for slitting throats or jumping off bridges — or bandwagons. The fact that they dared not to sweep every series can be overlooked, can’t it?
Having said all that, the Pistons will be probably lose in the NBA Finals against the Spurs. I felt the same way about the Lakers in ’04, but had I known then what I ended up knowing — that the Lakers were an unraveling, aging bunch, I might have picked the Pistons. The Spurs are neither unraveling nor aging — at least not to the point of creating a serious erosion of their skills. Remember Gary Payton and Karl Malone wheezing against the Pistons in the 2004 Finals?
So this is probably it for the Pistons — Eastern Conference champions. It’s as far as I thought they’d go. They will be significant underdogs against the Spurs — as should any team in the modern era, if they could return to the court during their prime and take on Tim Duncan and Company. The Spurs are the class of the league. Losing to them will not be dishonorable at all.
But as much as losing to the Cavs would be an upset, it wouldn’t be inexcusable, as Sharp suggests. The ’87 Pistons were a steal and a head butt away from facing the Lakers in the Finals. It can be said that the Cavaliers aren’t all that far separated from the Pistons, either. They aren’t anyone’s dregs.
The 1989 Pistons went 15-2 in the postseason. The ’90 version went 15-5. The 2004 champions were 16-7. The ’89 team was an anomaly; most champs lose a few along the way. The Pistons shouldn’t listen to the hand-wringers who would have them go 12-0 in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Not that they do. Thank goodness.