Isiah Thomas Game 6 1988 NBA Finals (#5 Greatest NBA Finals Performances of all time)
43 Points (18/32 fg) 8 assists, 6 steals (Video)
By 1988, Isiah’s consistently clutch play and leadership had elevated the Detroit Pistons to the NBA finals where they would hold a 3 games to 2 lead over the defending champions, The Los Angeles Lakers. Games 6 and 7 would be played in L.A., and Isiah and the Pistons were realistic about their chances should the series go to a 7th and deciding game on The Lakers home court. They knew that Game 6 was their opportunity to win that elusive Championship, so in their minds, it was a do-or-die situation. But as the game began, it was The Lakers who came out with desperate urgency, and would establish a 7 point lead early in the 3rd quarter. With Detroit in need of a spark, Isiah would provide it, catching fire in the 3rd quarter. The rest of the Pistons followed his lead and shifted into gear as they assumed control of the game, and the lead.
But with one misstep, their valiant comeback suddenly appeared to be in vein. Isiah had turned his ankle after setting up Joe Dumars for an easy basket on the break. “The first thing that went through my mind was that I had turned my ankle really bad”, Isiah explained, “And I thought it was something that I could just run through. But the more I put pressure on it, the more it hurt.”
The Lakers were quick to capitalise on Isiah not being on the court, cutting into Detroit’s lead immediately and stealing momentum, and without their captain to look to, The Pistons looked powerless to stop them.
What happened next will go down as one of the greatest gut-checks and responses in not just NBA history, but sport in general. With the lead and his image of a championship slipping away, Isiah would not sit idly by, and would lead an emotional Piston charge. From the moment he re-entered the game, it was obvious just how badly he was hurting, limping noticeably all over the court. But despite the pain, Thomas would rally Detroit single-handedly. Isiah was quoted in 1993 saying “I just kept saying to myself that I wasn’t going to quit, and I wasn’t going to be denied, and I wasn’t going to let an injury stop me from winning”.
In staging one of the NBA’s most courageous and heroic performances in the face of pain and pressure of trying to win a championship, Isiah put on an incredible offensive explosion. He was making unbelievable play after incredible play, often whilst being guarded by one the better on the ball defenders (on the perimeter, at least) of the generation in Michael Cooper, ranging from 3 pointers, to lay-ups, to running bank shots to keep The Pistons in the game. The heart and determination he showed in that quarter (where he would score an NBA finals record 25 3rd quarter points) left a never-to-be-forgotten image with anyone privileged enough to witness it, whether it was at the game or years (decades) later.
Then team-mate, Dennis Rodman, summed it up perfectly “That’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in my life. Because a guy that’s willing to sacrifice his body, his whole career, to win a championship.”
Despite Isiah’s heroics, Detroit would narrowly lose game 6 and ultimately the series. But the very next year, Isiah would finally realise his dream: winning the first of back to back championships, cementing his place as one of the game’s greatest winners.
Number 4: Bill Russell Game 7 1969 NBA Finals
Numbers 6-10: Greatest performances in NBA Finals History