Revisiting Isiah Thomas’ 25-point third quarter

It’s been 30 years since Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. The outcome may have resulted in a 103-102 victory for the Los Angeles Lakers. But it was Detroit Pistons’ guard Isiah Thomas who put on a third quarter to remember.

Exactly thirty years ago this Tuesday, Isiah Thomas etched his name into NBA Finals’ lore.

The Detroit Pistons’ captain finished with 43 points, eight assists, six steals and three rebounds in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. But it was his 25-point third quarter, and how it unfolded, that ultimately stole the show.

Now it’s time to revisit that legendary performance.

July 19, 1988

The Pistons entered The Forum that night with a 3-2 series lead. Coming off a 104-94 win three days prior at the Pontiac Silverdome, Detroit had pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of elimination.

It was a tale of two quarters in the opening half. The Pistons closed the first period with a 26-20 lead. But Los Angeles responded with a 33-point second quarter, and claimed a 53-46 advantage at halftime.

Thomas quickly took control out of the break, scoring 14 points before suffering a devastating injury. With just over four minutes to play in the third quarter, he landed on Michael Cooper‘s foot in transition, rolling his right ankle.

The pain caused Thomas to collapse underneath the basket. Pistons’ trainer Mike Abdenour quickly tended to the point guard on the baseline.

In the 2014 ESPN documentary 30 for 30: Bad Boys, Abendour said that Thomas couldn’t put any weight on his ankle. When he tried to stand up, he immediately fell right back down to the floor.

With the Pistons trailing by eight, he was taken out of the game for 35 seconds.

He shuts his eyes. Locks into whatever zone he got into, and said, “Okay, I can do this.”

Mike Abdenour – 30 for 30: Bad Boys

A hobbling Thomas checked back into the ballgame, and scored 11 of the Pistons’ final 15 points in the third quarter.

He first knocked down a baseline jumper, elevating from only his left leg. Then he drew a shooting foul on a fade-away that banked in off the glass. Later, he sank a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. All of this occurred while he was noticeably favoring his right leg.

Thomas was miraculous, and his Finals-record 25 points in the quarter gave the Pistons a two-point lead heading into the fourth.

During the broadcast, play-by-play man Dick Stockton referred to Thomas’ performance as, “maybe one of the best we’ve ever seen in one-quarter, in NBA Finals history.”

As memorable as his third period was, the game would end on a sour note. Any Pistons fan watching that night will surely remember this last whistle.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit both free throws, and the Lakers tied the series at three.

Thomas managed to play in Game 7. But his ankle had swelled severely by that point, and he scored just 10 points in 28 minutes. Los Angeles won the game (108-105) and the championship. Once again, the Pistons were left empty-handed.

A Detroit loss shouldn’t diminish Thomas’ feat. His NBA Finals-record for most points scored in a single quarter remains unbroken to this day.


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