With "The Last Dance," we expected some discussion (and criticism) of the 1997-98 Bulls players and staff. What we may not have expected was the Bulls-Pistons rivalry to reignite. Especially between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas.
Isiah added fuel to the fire when, in a recent interview with CBS Sports, he claimed that Jordan was the fourth-best player he played against. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were his top three. What better time is there to re-examine the Michael Jordan-Isiah Thomas feud?
Thomas as a villain is strange; how many times do we root against one of Chicago's own? That speaks to the intensity of the Bulls-Pistons rivalry from the late 1980s to early 1990s. The first meeting between Isiah and Michael was Nov. 7, 1984, when the Bulls stunned the Pistons at the Silverdome 122-118. It was Thomas who led all scorers with 35 points (and 10 assists), while Jordan scored 25, all in the second half, after sitting most of the first half in foul trouble.
According to legend, the rivalry heated up at the 1985 All-Star Game, where Thomas orchestrated a "freeze-out" to teach the rookie phenom a lesson, and MJ scored only seven points on 2-of-9 shooting. According to a Bob Sakamoto Chicago Tribune article two days after the All-Star Game:
Stories have been circulating since Sunday's National Basketball Association All-Star game that the players in Indianapolis perceived Jordan's behavior over the weekend as arrogant and cocky.
One incident reportedly occurred when Jordan allegedly refused to acknowledge Thomas' presence in a hotel elevator Saturday night.
"That never happened," Thomas said Monday. "I was very upset when I read that. It could affect a potential friendship between me and Michael."
Jordan commented on the situation.
"I don't think that was happening," Jordan said then. "In an All-Star Game, you have to be very aggressive and show what you can do. This being my first All-Star Game, I was very tentative. I didn't want to be perceived as a rookie going out to steal the show. I was just happy to be there."
The article ended with some interesting comments by Thomas, especially given the nature of the rivalry in years to come:
Will Thomas straighten things out with Jordan at Tuesday's game? "I'm going to talk to him [Monday night] before we even get to the court," Thomas said.
Thomas thinks everything will be fine between them by game time.
"If Michael Jordan ever walked by me without saying hello, I'd probably turn around and punch him in the face," Thomas said with a laugh.
And with that, the Bulls beat the Pistons 139-126 in overtime at Chicago Stadium the day that article hit the newspaper. Jordan poured in a then-career-high 49 (to Thomas' 19).
In seven head-to-head matchups from 1984-85 to 1986-87, Jordan's Bulls held a 7-6 edge over Isiah's Pistons. That changed over the next three seasons when the Pistons reached the NBA Finals all three years AND beat the Bulls each season in the playoffs along the way. Over that three-year span, from 1987-88 to 1989-90, Isiah's Pistons went 14-3 (including 6-0 in 1988-89) against Jordan's Bull in the regular season, and 12-6 in the playoffs.
The rivalry grew. Chicagoans HATED the Pistons. Hate is a strong word, and it applied. As Jordan took the Bulls to new heights, they just couldn't get past the Bad Boys. And the way Detroit won – with physical, often dirty play – was infuriating to watch.
The final three seasons Michael and Isiah went head-to-head were 1990-91 through 1992-93, and the tide turned. MJ's Bulls were 9-4 against Isiah's Pistons head-to-head (keep in mind, I'm referring only to games where both players played), and the final time the two titans met in the playoffs – in 1991 – the Bulls finally got the best of the Bad Boys, and did it with a convincing four-game sweep.
In all, Jordan and Thomas went head-to-head in the regular season 43 times. Here's how they did:
Jordan outscored Thomas in 36 of the 43 games. MJ's high was 61 on March 4, 1987. Isiah's high was 36 on Jan. 3, 1987.
Here's the regular season breakdown in wins:
Wins by year
Now the head-to-head numbers in 22 playoff games:
Jordan outscored Thomas in 18 of the 22 games. Once they finished with the same amount of points. The head-to-head playoff highs for both players happened on May 26, 1991, when Jordan scored 47 to Thomas' 36.
Head-to-head playoff win breakdown:
So then why would Thomas claim Jordan only the fourth-best player he played against? In the case of Larry Bird, it might be because the Celtics dominated the Pistons for the most part; 29-12 in 41 head-to-head matchups in the regular season; 11-11 in the postseason. Though Bird only outscored Isiah 26.3 PPG to 22.7 in regular season, 23.5 PPG to 21.7 in playoffs.
As far as Kareem and Magic: Here are the numbers for those matchups with Thomas.
Head-to-head vs. Isiah
Playoffs vs. Isiah
Obviously, these numbers don't tell the entire story and don't include defense, but we know the type of defender Jordan was. Strong opinions are what make sports fun, and Thomas is entitled to his.
Looking back at the Bulls vs. Pistons rivalry of the late 1980s and 1990s brings back a flurry of emotions. Having an opponent that you can't stand makes the victory that much more sweet. And in 1991, it didn't get any better than when the Bulls finally got over that hump. It seems like the Isiah Thomas who refused to offer a handshake after being swept in 1991 is the same Thomas who refuses to give Jordan his due in 2020.
Isiah Thomas joked in 1985 he would punch Michael Jordan if he blew him off originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago