The 1988 NBA Finals will rightly be remembered as the year the defending champion Lakers fulfilled coach Pat Riley’s promise of a repeat. But more than a few will recall Isiah Thomas’ gutsy performance in Game 6 at the Forum.
Isiah Thomas, hobbling on a sprained ankle, scores an NBA-record 25 points in the third quarter. On a sprained right ankle, with a gash on his left cheek, an eye that watered from a Laker finger’s poke and a possibly dislocated little finger on his left hand, the Pistons’ captain played one of the most heroic games in the history of this franchise and fell a single basket short of bringing the championship to Michigan in a 103-102 loss.
It was weird and courageous all into one, the sight of a player producing an all-time great quarter on one leg. Before he rolled his right ankle while assisting a Joe Dumars basket, Thomas had scored 14 points in the third quarter to start a Detroit Pistons rally.
The Pistons were down 56-48 early in the third quarter of Game 6 when Thomas scored the next 14 points in a variety of ways: two free throws, a 5-footer off an offensive rebound, three jumpers, a bank shot, and a layup.
Then, with a little more than four minutes to go in the period, Thomas landed on Michael Cooper’s foot and had to be helped from the floor.
Despite a severely sprained ankle, Thomas returned 35 seconds later and continued the offensive assault. By the end of the quarter, he had hit 11 of 13 shots from the floor for 25 points.
“What Isiah Thomas did in the second half was just incredible,” agreed Lakers coach Pat Riley.
Lakers guard Magic Johnson, Thomas’ longtime friend, added: “I think he was just unconscious. I think he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to take this game over.’ I’ve seen him do that before. He was in his rhythm. When he starts skipping and hopping, that means he’s in his rhythm. That means he’s ready.”
Thomas finished with 43 points and eight assists and at times was the best player despite the injury. The finish was controversial as a “phantom” foul by Bill Laimbeer on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gave the aging Lakers the lead for good. With his ankle still stiff and bothersome, Thomas was a non-factor in Game 7, which the Lakers won. Many believe if not for the injury, the “Bad Boy”-era Pistons would have three titles instead of two.