36 years ago today, Detroit Pistons fans would witness one of the most impressive scoring performances of all time when Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in 94 seconds against the New York Knicks, sending the fifth and final game to OT.
”I don’t remember a thing about what happened,” Bernard King told The New York Times after the final game of the 1984 playoff series between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. “I was so intense. All I know is that I thought we had the game several times but they just kept coming back. They just wouldn’t give up.”
That don’t-give-up mentality would go on to define Isiah Thomas and eventually, the Bad Boys Pistons. But before Detroit would go on to win back to back championships, Thomas and the Pistons were already showing the will of a team that would not back down.
It was April 27th, 1984 and the Pistons were playing in front of a record crowd of 21,208 at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings. The Pistons’ usual arena, the Silverdome, was filled with dirt.
That’s not a shot at the Detroit Lions either, the Silverdome was scheduled to host a motocross event.
“Didn’t they think we were going to be in the playoffs?” coach Chuck Daly complained to the Detroit Free Press.
It was the Pistons’ first playoff appearance in 6 years so it might have been assumed by the higher powers that the Pistons would not be playing this late into the year.
In fitting fashion for a basketball game played in a hockey arena, the game was supremely physical and resulted in a hilarious amount of fouls, 36 for the Knicks, 32 for the Pistons.
We even get a classic Bill Laimbeer foul in the 3rd, where he hacks Rory Sparrow so hard that it made me go, “Oh!” at my TV. Of course, Laimbeer responds to the following whistle with the outrage of a man being accused of homicide.
Right from the jump, it’s clear Isiah is relishing his first playoff elimination game. In a 3 play sequence during the early going, Thomas forces a turnover on one end of the court, hits a jumper on the other, and then plays defense on a 3 on 1 fast break and BLOCKS the shot.
I’ve seen countless players simply go through the motions during a 3 -1 fast break but the 6’1″ Thomas didn’t give up.
In the first half, Thomas, as he is wont to do, mostly orchestrated the offense (only scoring 3 points himself) and hounding the Knicks ball-handlers, Rory Sparrow and Ray Williams. Sparrow and Williams would finish the game a combined 8 for 33 from the field.
The Pistons’ defense was stifling in the first half, producing 14 Knicks turnovers, but there was one man that Detroit had no answer for: Bernard King.
King’s combination of strength, skill, and speed was too much for the Pistons. King knew when to bully and when to be crafty, able to get a bucket seemingly at will. Carmelo Anthony is often compared to Bernard King and it’s easy to see why.
Detroit gets torched by a combination of mid-range jumpers, dunks, and lay-ups, with most buckets beginning when King holds the ball and begins sizing up his opponent. King would set the record for most points in a 5 game series in this game and finish with 44 points on 65 percent shooting, reportedly with 2 dislocated fingers and the flu.
Luckily, this entire game is available on Youtube and includes an amazing half-time show featuring the Knicks’ bench and their seemingly ubiquitous mustaches. Future Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld‘s mustache, in particular, is quite gruesome.
The 3rd quarter quickly dissolves into a free-throw shooting contest. Sure, the game is physical but the refs are calling just about anything that might be, maybe sort of, considered a foul. Don’t let the old heads fool you into thinking modern players couldn’t play in this era, James Harden would’ve shot 97 free throws in this game.
King sits out most of the 3rd quarter due to foul trouble and Knicks center, Bill Cartwright, picks up the slack posting 23 of his 29 points in the 2nd half. On the other end, Laimbeer lights up the Knicks for 19 of his 25 points in the 2nd half.
But the most inspiring 2nd half performance and the reason I’m writing about this game would come in the final 2 minutes. Here’s how it played out:
The Knicks are up 104 – 98 with the ball and Bernard King hits a tough leaning jumper over Earl Cureton. Sensing the game is slipping away, Isiah races down the court, dribbles behind his back, and answers with a pull-up jumper. Wet. 106 – 100.
The Pistons employ the full-court press, trapping the Knicks at half court and forcing a timeout. The Joe Louis Arena crowd is erupting and comes out of the timeout with a standing ovation for the Pistons.
The Knicks guard, Ray Williams, responds by pulling up for the tough jumper with the shot clock expiring. He hits it.
Thomas once again races down the court, backing down Sparrow. Isiah does a half-spin and hits the turn around jumper. And one. Isiah calmly sinks the free throw.
Knicks inbound the ball and Isiah nearly swipes it – the Pistons defense is swarming. The Knicks make it across half-court but Laimbeer and Thomas trap the ball handler and Thomas steals the ball! Sparrow gets called for the loose ball foul and Thomas naturally hits the free throws. 108 – 105 Knicks.
On the next possession, the Knicks throw the ball down court to Bernard King beating the Pistons full-court trap. King misses a mid-range jumper but is fouled on the shot. The Joe Louis crowd gives King a Detroit welcome at the free-throw line but he makes the free throws anyway.
Pistons inbound the ball, Isiah Thomas once again sprints down the court and begins backing down Rory Sparrow for the turn around jumper. This time Isiah misses but Sparrow is called for the foul, his 6th. There’s less than a minute left.
Isiah hits the first one, 22 points for Thomas, but misses the next. The Knicks push the ball down the court to escape the trap and Bernard King comes through with the easy dunk. Knicks 112 – 106.
Knicks color commentator, Butch Beard, comments, “that could have been the back-breaker”. Isiah streaks down the court, splits the defense – throws up a high arcing layup and draws the foul.
Another and one for Thomas, fouling out the other Knicks starting guard, Ray Williams, in the process. Timeout. The Joe starts singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
Thomas hits the free throw. Knicks up by only 3 now. Detroit’s full-court press forces the Knicks’ Louis Orr to steps out of bounds. Pistons ball!
Detroit inbounds it to, who else, Isiah Thomas. Bill Laimbeer frantically motions for the Pistons to get out of Isiah’s way. Thomas backs his man down and hits another turn around jumper. 1 point lead for the Knicks. 36 seconds left, the Joe Louis crowd is on its feet and the Knicks call timeout, clinging to the lead.
The timeout advances the ball for the Knicks. Bernard King calls for his teammates to clear out and begins to iso. King hits an absolutely incredible leaning jumper, falling out of bounds, silencing the crowd. Pistons are down 3. Only 26 seconds left.
Chuck Daly draws up a beautiful play out of the timeout. Kelly Tripuka inbounds to Laimbeer, Laimbeer shovels the ball to Isiah Thomas as he stops right above the 3-point line. Isiah lets it fly…
“He’s got it!” Marv Albert exclaims. Tied game. Knicks call a timeout.
The Knicks’ Darrell Walker goes to inbound the ball. He’s pressured by Tripuka and just tosses the ball out of bounds. Like just throws it sideways. Butch Beard calls it a “total panic move.”
Isiah gets the ensuing inbound. He holds it waiting for the final shot. 10 seconds left. Thomas begins his drive and Walker strips Thomas, redeeming his inbound gaff and ending Isiah’s scorching hot 16 points in 94 seconds barrage.
Walker throws an outlet pass to a streaking Trent Tucker. 3 seconds left. Tucker goes up for the shot and is tackled by a Pistons player. Beard is shouting, “Tucker was fouled! Tucker was fouled!”
No call and it turns out to be the right call. The replay shows that Tucker waited too long to get a shot off. We head to overtime.
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After Isiah Thomas and The Pistons couldn’t miss in the final 2 minutes of regulation, the milk goes bad in overtime as Laimbeer hits a lonely field goal and then fouls out.
The Knicks go on to score 9 straight unanswered points, capped off by Darrell Walker’s spinning layup. The Knicks are up 123 – 116 with 1:29 left.
Isiah Thomas, unsurprisingly, still has some fight in him. He comes out of the timeout and immediately hits a 30 foot 3 pointer. Straight up Steph Curry range. 4 point game.
Bernard King calmly answers with a turn around jumper but Thomas is determined to keep the game in hand and comes back with an effortless layup.
The Pistons start the full-court press and Louis Orr turns it over again! 1:06 left, Knicks up 106 – 102.
The Pistons’ George Benson almost turns it over with the strangest in-bound pass ever, bouncing the basketball like he was trying to see how high he could get it to go. Luckily, the Pistons recover the ball and Earl Cureton hits a shot to cut the Knicks’ lead to 2. Pistons foul Bill Cartwright and he hits the 2 free throws, the Pistons miss the next shot and the game is, unceremoniously, over.
”From my standpoint, I mean this with all sincerity, it’s too bad that someone had to lose,” Hubie Brown, the Knicks’ coach, told the New York Times. ”They went out swinging, and Isiah Thomas’s effort in the fourth quarter was a staggering punch to us.”
Isiah Thomas was only 23 years old but played with the mindset of someone who had already taken their playoff lumps. He didn’t get lost in the moment or overthink it. He just wanted to win.
With his poise and drive, watching this game now, it’s no surprise that Isiah would go on to lead the Pistons to back to back championships. The crowd seemed to know this team was destined for greatness too. Despite the loss, Pistons fans bid their team farewell with a standing ovation.
“Sometimes Zeke is magical,” Chuck Daly told the Detroit Free Press. “Only he can play like that.”