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Isiah Thomas explains why Jordan and the Bulls weren't his real competition before 1990


Isiah Thomas got a lot of attention during ‘The Last Dance‘ documentary, mostly because of Detroit Piston’s fierce rivalry with the Chicago Bulls during the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. The Pistons were a superior team for several years until the Bulls beat them, but they also followed the same road to success a few years prior. In a recent podcast ‘Speak for Yourself’, Thomas said the Boston Celtics were the team that set the standard and for the Pistons presented a more significant obstacle than the more popular Bulls teams.

On top of the Celtics with Larry Bird, the Pistons had to deal with another all-time great dynasty, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson. But, according to Thomas, ever since Jordan entered the game and up until the season 1989/90, he didn’t present a real threat to them. Jordan was a great scorer, but the Bulls were missing a few pieces to become a championship-contending team.

"When we were all young and healthy – from 84 to 90 – the numbers speak for themselves. He wasn't really my competition. My competition was Bird and Magic, trying to catch the Celtics, trying to catch the Lakers. Chicago at that time, and Jordan at that time, from 84 to 90, before my wrist surgery, he just – that wasn't my competition."

Isiah Thomas, via Speak for Yourself

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Thomas gives a lot of respect for the Celtics, who were truly a dynasty and had a great run between 1984 and 1989 while Larry Bird was still in his prime. That Celtics featured several All-Star players and were coached exceptionally well while putting their ego aside for the greater success of the team. Thomas considers the Celtics their mentors and the team they learned a lot from and used that experience to beat them finally.

"When Boston was at their absolute best, we gave them competition. But they were better than us. And as they got older, as they got a little bit more banged up, we were able to catch them. Now, what we were able to learn from Boston during that process – the Detroit Pistons, and every time you hear us talk about who were are, what we became, we do not mention ourselves as championships without saying the Boston Celtics. Because those were our teachers, those were our mentors. Those are the people that really taught us how to win. And they gave us the heartaches."

Isiah Thomas, via Speak for Yourself

The Pistons and Celtics played in two straight eastern conference finals. In 1987, the Celtics won in a seven-game series that produced several historical games and individual performances. In 1988, the Piston finally succeeded and beat the Celtics in a six-game series that proved they elevated their game by becoming a better-rounded team. Unfortunately, they fell short against the Lakers in a seven-game series.

It’s no coincidence Thomas is giving these two legendary teams the respect they deserve because he had to go against them for several years. But, like many other great teams in NBA history, the Pistons overcame all of their challenges, and Thomas is one of the rare players that can proudly say he beat Bird, Magic, and Jordan in their prime years.

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