The Detroit Pistons are free again. Free to celebrate becoming one of the
National Basketball Association's historic champions. They rose to that perch Thursday night with a typical Piston victory, a 92-90 comeback win over the stunned Portland Trail Blazers, to take their second straight championship.A year ago, their celebration was stopped in mid-squeal when Rick Mahorn was taken in the expansion draft by Minnesota. For a year, they adjusted to that departure and to their new roles. They perservered, and became just the third team in NBA history to win back-to-back titles.
"We're a special team," said guard Isiah Thomas, a unanimous Most Valuable Player choice after 29 points on 13-of-20 shooting. "We always feel that if it's a close game, we're going to win it. That's our type of game. We feel like we can win those games. We usually do."
Thursday night, it was guard Vinnie Johnson who did the deed, making an 18-footer with 0.7 seconds remaining to cap a 9-0 run in just more than two minutes that jolted the sellout 12,642 at Memorial Coliseum.
Last season, Johnson thought he might be the one unprotected in the expansion draft. Thursday, he scored 15 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, hitting six of eight from the field.
"I'd never been in that situation before," Johnson said of the game-winner. "I felt no pressure. I thought it was just a regular old jump shot."
"I told him at the half," said center Bill Laimbeer. "He was a little perturbed that he didn't get the playing time. I told him not toget upset, to stay in the game. I told him that he would win the game for us."
It left the Trail Blazers' world in tatters. They had led by 90-83 with 2:02 left, after a seeming exclamation point of a dunk by Buck Williams (10 points, eight rebounds). They began celebrating. They thought they had a Game 6 date set for Sunday.
They were wrong. The Pistons play all 48 minutes most of the time. It's not lip service. And they did so again Thursday night.
"What impressed me most was how they executed," Williams said, "how they had a sense for the game, how they executed at the end of the game. When they needed a big basket one of their veterans came through."
Portland had been matching Detroit shove for shove and bump for bump. It didn't make for pretty play, but the Trail Blazers held the Pistons to 13 third-quarter shots and led by 69-65 after three.
They continued it in the fourth, using a 7-0 spurt midway through the quarter to take an 86-81 lead on center Kevin Duckworth's turnaround. John Salley scored for Detroit, but Clyde Drexler (20 points) spun for two and when Jerome Kersey fed Williams for the dunk, the game looked secure.
But Johnson started the rally with a jumper at 1:50, fouling out Drexler in the process. Johnson's free throw made it a four-point margin.
Duckworth, who had been strong all night with 21 points, then posted up for a short hook. He missed, and it took Johnson about eight seconds to go baseline and make another jumper at 1:21. The Portland lead was 90-88.
Duckworth posted again. He missed again, and Laimbeer grabbed the last of his 17 rebounds. Detroit didn't score, getting tied up for a jump ball that the Trail Blazers controlled. But Terry Porter (21 points, nine assists) threw away the ball after penetrating the lane, and the Pistons had the ball with 20.1 seconds left.
Detroit's three-guard offense once again made the difference. If the Pistons had had their usual lineup on the floor, Portland forward Kersey wouldn't have had to switch off on Johnson. But the Pistons had Joe Dumars in the game as well, so when they handed Johnson the ball, Kersey had to switch off.
Johnson backed in. The clock ran under three seconds, then two. He squared up and leaned a little, and the shot was never in doubt.
"I knew they would probably double-team or triple-team Isiah," Johnson said. "I thought he could still make the shot, as hot as he was. I just thought about the move I had to make."
Said Kersey: "I didn't want to give him an easy drive to the basket. I tried to play the jump shot and the rest is history."
Porter missed a desperation shot at the buzzer and the Pistons had come full circle. They took all kinds of heat for letting Mahorn, the heart of last season's Bad Boys, be taken. It made them change the way they played.
They had to go through some trials, starting John Salley, then James Edwards; Mark Aguirre, then Dennis Rodman. But they held off all challengers, and set a NBA Finals record by winning for the fifth straight time on the road, thanks to Johnson.