Detroit Pistons' NBA playoff history: Top 5 performances full of iconic moments

The Detroit Pistons are one of the NBA’s winningest franchises, even in the midst of a 16-year drought without a playoff win, the league's longest.

Only four teams have won more championships than the Pistons' three titles in 1989, 1990 and 2004. They also have 10 conference finals appearances, tied for fourth most with the Chicago Bulls.

There are numerous playoff performances that rank among the best in Pistons history, and whittling the list down is a difficult task. The order is open to debate.

Here are the five best individual postseason performances the franchise has ever seen.

Honorable mentions

  • Vinnie Johnson vs. Boston Celtics, Game 4, 1985 East semifinals: 34 points, 22 in fourth quarter, on 16-for-21 shooting off the bench in a 102-99 Pistons win to tie the series at 2-2, before falling in six games.

  • Vinnie Johnson vs. Atlanta Hawks, Game 5, 1987 East semifinals: 15 points in fourth quarter to help Pistons win series, 104-96, after trailing by 12 to clinch first East finals appearance.

  • Dennis Rodman vs. Chicago Bulls, Game 4, 1990 East finals: 20 points, 20 rebounds (10 offensive). Pistons lost 108-101, but won series in seven games.

  • Chauncey Billups vs. Orlando Magic, Game 6, 2003 East first round: 40 points, four assists, four rebounds, 7-for-14 from 3, 11-for-12 at the foul line. Pistons won, 103-88, to force a Game 7 vs. the No. 8 seed Magic, which they won.

  • Ben Wallace vs. Orlando Magic, Game 6, 2003 East first round: 20 points, 17 rebounds, five blocks, four steals (though he was 8-for-22 at the foul line) to complement Billups' dominance from the perimeter.

  • Richard Hamilton vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Game 3, 2004 Finals: 31 points on 11-for-22 shooting with six rebounds, three assists, two steals in an 88-68 victory and 2-1 series lead.

  • Ben Wallace vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Game 5, 2004 Finals: 18 points, 22 rebounds (11 offensive), three steals to lead Pistons to a 100-87 win and the championship.

MORE: Pistons flat-out better than Lakers in 2004. They proved it in Game 1 of NBA Finals.

5. Vinnie Johnson vs. Portland Trail Blazers, Game 5, 1990 NBA Finals

“The Microwave” has a number of memorable playoff performances that rank among the franchise's most impressive. But his best one powered the Pistons to their second NBA title.

He scored 15 of his 16 points in the final period, including the improbable title-winning 15-footer over a tight contest from Jerome Kersey with 0.7 seconds on the clock for the 92-90 win at Portland.

The Pistons, playing in a hostile road environment with a 3-1 series lead, appeared to be on the verge of having to close the series out back at home. The Blazers led, 76-68, with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter until “The Microwave” began to cook.

Johnson’s 15 points were scored in two separate runs. The first saw him score nine in a row to give the Pistons the 77-76 lead with 6:35 on the clock. Portland took the lead once again, but Johnson then scored seven points during the Pistons’ game-closing 9-0 run, including drawing the sixth foul on the Blazers' best player, Clyde Drexler.

After Johnson's go-ahead bucket, Terry Porter narrowly missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, allowing the Pistons to take home their second NBA championship ring in two years.

"Vinnie makes so many shots like that," Pistons guard Joe Dumars said afterward. "If anybody else had taken a shot so off-balance, I might have worried. But not with Vinnie."

4. Bill Laimbeer vs. Portland Trail Blazers, Game 2, 1990 NBA Finals

Bill Laimbeer, a "stretch big" before the NBA embraced the 3-point line in the past few decades, saved one of his best performances from behind-the-arc for Game 2 of the 1990 Finals, as the Pistons yearned for their second straight championship: 26 points, 11 rebounds, six 3-pointers.

The Pistons won Game 1, but Laimbeer got off to a cold start in Game 2, scoring seven points through the first three quarters. He found his touch in the fourth quarter and overtime, scoring 17 points in that span. His six 3s tied a Finals record set by Michael Cooper in 1987.

Laimbeer hit three 3s in OT, his first two giving the Pistons a 104-98 lead with 90 seconds remaining. His sixth and final 3 with 4.1 seconds remaining put the Pistons on top again, 105-104, with Isiah Thomas on the bench with six fouls. But Drexler responded with a pair of free throws on the other end, sealing a 106-105 win and the Pistons' first playoff loss at the Palace of Auburn Hills after winning 14 in a row.

3. Isiah Thomas vs. New York Knicks, Game 5, 1984 Eastern Conference quarterfinals

It was a star-making performance at the Red Wings' Joe Louis Arena for the 22-year old Thomas, who had 35 points and 12 assists in his first playoff series. The fourth-seeded Pistons were in an elimination game in the first round against a tough fifth-seed Knicks team led by Bernard King, trailing by eight points with less than two minutes to play. King scored 44 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, despite battling the flu.

(From left) John Long, Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly were all principal participants in Game 5 of the 1984 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena.
(From left) John Long, Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly were all principal participants in Game 5 of the 1984 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena.

The Pistons wouldn’t prevail, but a late barrage by Thomas put New York on its heels. Thomas scored 16 points in the final 94 seconds of the fourth quarter, tying the game at 114 to send the game into overtime in front of a raucous crowd. The Pistons then went cold in the extra period, missing their first 11 shots to give the Knicks control.

A 30-foot 3-pointer by Thomas cut the Knicks' lead to four, and the Pistons got within two before Thomas fouled out with 37 seconds left. A pair of free throws by Bill Cartwright clinched the win for the Knicks, 127-123.

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2. Joe Dumars vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Game 3, 1989 NBA Finals

After capturing games one and two in Detroit, the Pistons were tasked with repeating the feat in Los Angeles. Dumars took care of business on both ends of the floor to make it happen.

He scored a game-high 31 points, including 17 in a row in the third quarter as he tallied 21 of the Pistons' 29 points in the period. But the Lakers fought hard despite losing Magic Johnson five minutes into the game with a hamstring injury, leading the Pistons 88-86 going into the fourth.

Dumars’ best play of the night might’ve been his last. The Pistons led 113-108 with 15 seconds remaining, but a steal by A.C. Green and two free throws by David Rivers cut the lead to three. The Pistons then turned the ball over a second time, giving the Lakers a chance to tie with nine seconds left.

Dumars made up for his turnover, blocking a 3-point attempt by Rivers and then saving the ball from going out of bounds. Laimbeer hit a free throw to clinch a 114-110 win and 3-0 series lead. Dumars also had five assists in the game. He then earned Finals MVP honors after leading the Pistons with 23 points in Game 4, securing their first championship.

1. Isiah Thomas vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Game 6, 1988 NBA Finals

It’s not just the greatest individual performance in Pistons history — it’s one of the most courageous postseason performances in any sport.

Isiah Thomas crumbled after a twisted ankle and is attended to by trainer Mike Abdenour at The Forum in Inglewood, California, during Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 19, 1988.
Isiah Thomas crumbled after a twisted ankle and is attended to by trainer Mike Abdenour at The Forum in Inglewood, California, during Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 19, 1988.

With the Pistons trailing 56-48 at the start of the third quarter with a 3-2 series lead, Thomas scored the Pistons' next 14 points to keep them in the game. He couldn’t miss, splashing an array of tough jumpers and finishes at the rim against the defending champs. Then he got injured, and his historic night began.

With 4:21 remaining in the period, Thomas severely rolled his right ankle while dishing a pass to Dumars. He briefly exited the game, visibly in pain as he limped to the bench. Then he checked back in with 3:44 to go, and picked up where he left off. He scored 11 more points while barely using his right leg, giving him an NBA Finals-record 25 in the third period and the Pistons an 81-79 lead.

He knocked down his final jumper with a minute-and-a-half to go in the fourth, giving him 43 points (and eight assists) for a 100-99 lead. A pair of free throws by Dumars extended it to three. But the Pistons lost in gut-wrenching fashion, thanks to a controversial referee call. Byron Scott cut the Pistons' lead to one with a jumper, and after a Thomas missed base line jumper, Kareem Abdul-Jabber drew a foul on Laimbeer — his sixth — and hit both to give the Lakers a 103-102 advantage.

It’s known as the “Phantom Foul,” as Laimbeer appeared to barely nudge the Hall of Fame center. Dumars’ jumper on the other end missed, and the Pistons lost. They also dropped Game 7, 108-105, as Thomas struggled in the second half due to his injured ankle. But his historic performance in Game 6 was a prelude to the birth of one of the toughest teams in NBA history, as the Pistons captured the next two titles.

READ MORE: Isiah Thomas produced historic game. Then Pistons were robbed of first NBA title.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him @omarisankofa.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons playoff history: Top 5 games full of iconic moments