[Editor's Note: This is part one of a nine-part series examining the Wizards/Bullets' recent playoff history. This series is occuring in no particular order and with no particular schedule as of now. That's because we need one of you guys to sign up and take these series. Here's what's open:
April 28, 1988.
For those of you who aren't well-versed in your history of this day, I'll bring you up to speed. Where do Broken Hearts Go? by Whitney Houston was the #1 song in the U.S.A. Things Change and Cellar Dweller were both released, and this guy was 2.5 months away from making his grand entrance into the world. But of course the reason we're remembering this date in history is because this is the day the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Bullets began their 5 game opening round playoff series.
On one side, you had the Bad Boys: Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Adrian Dantley, and Vinnie Johnson who were not only very good, but very angry after a devastating loss the year before. This anger pushed them all the way to the top with a 54-28 record, and the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
On the other side, you had the Washington Bullets who were led by the two Malones: Jeff and Moses. Bernard King (who attended the same college as Ernie Grunfeld, who also was playing at Tennessee at the time) was also on this Bullets team. Oddly enough, this was the only year in which Bernard played more than half the season and averaged less than 20 points per game but his 17.9 was still good enough for third on the team. The Bullets started out slow, stumbling to an 8-19 record prompting the front office to fire coach Kevin Loughery and bring in Bullets legend Wes Unseld who was one the key players in the Bullets 1978 championship team. Unseld would guide the Bullets to a 30-25 record as a coach putting them at 38-44 for the season, good enough for seventh overall in the Eastern Conference.
However, for all the great things that this retro Big 3 accomplished, in the annals of history they will always be overshadowed by two players who made a sizable impact on the game. The Bullets had an exciting rookie point guard out of Wake Forest. While he didn't light up the scoreboard (a modest 14 ppg) he was an absolute assist machine dishing out 9.5 dimes per game in college. Three years before, the Bullets had drafted another exciting rookie from Cleveland State in the second round of the draft. Like the other rookie, he had problems scoring but he had a penchant for blocking shots like no one's business. The two players would find their fame when they were featured in a famous photo. It would become famous because...well, just look at the picture:
Mugsy Bogues and Manute Bol would be the lasting legacy of this team. While they didn't have the biggest impact on the court, the unlikely pairing continue to be fodder for trivia gurus and basketball buffs everywhere. [Random tidbit: Mugsy Bogues was the Bullets first round pick in 1987, the Bullets 7th round pick was Jamie Dixon, who is now the Pitt's basketball coach.]
Obviously, the Pistons were the overwhelming favorites coming into the series and in Game 1 played like it taking the game with ease 96-87. The Bullets wouldn't lie down though, as the pushed the Pistons to the limit losing a hard fought Game 2 102-101. As the series shifted from the Silverdome to USAir Arena so did the momentum. The Bullets would win an overtime thriller in Game 3 114-106 and then evened up the series with 106-103 win in Game 4. With the series tied 2-2, the series was going back to Detroit for the deciding Game 5. After a series of thrilling games the final game was a blowout as the Pistons dominated throughout winning 98-77 and advancing to the conference semifinals. Ultimately, it was just too much of Isiah Thomas as he elevated his scoring and assists totals. For the Bullets, it was too much of Jeff Malone and no one else. While he would average 25 per game during the series, 5 over his season average, the rest of his team struggled. Washington only hit one 3 pointer the entire series.
The Pistons would go on to 4-1 series win over the Chicago Bulls and then got revenge against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Ironically, the Bullets were the only team to take the Pistons the distance in the Eastern Conference. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers proved to be too much as they won a tight series that went down to the very end.
The Pistons would be back, as they won their first title sweeping the Lakers in the NBA Finals and going on to win it all again the next year. The Bullets had a much harder road. Moses Malone went to the Hawks, Manute Bol went off to Golden State. Oddly enough, the Bullets posted a better record the next year, going 42-40 but missed the playoffs in the first of what would be eight straight seasons without a playoff appearance.