As personalities, though, the members of the threesome couldn't be more different. Johnson draws no curtain between his emotions and his actions. When he's playing badly, his sad eyes look sadder and his barrel chest seems to retract. But when he's playing well, every fiber of his being seems alive. He demands the ball, and the Pistons are happy to comply. He scored 13 points in a significant seven-minute flurry in Game 3, and came back with 15—including the clinching jump shot with .7 of a second left—in the final 8:29 of Game 5. That's Vinnie on the court.
And this is Vinnie off it—a candid person who can, without embarrassment, characterize his abilities thusly, as he did not long ago: "I have a great all-around game. I can score. I can rebound. I'm great running the break, two-on-one, three-on-two. I'm great at it. Nobody realizes that, but I am. And I'm a very good defensive player. Not to take anything away from Dennis [Rodman], but Vinnie Johnson's the one who guards Michael Jordan early in the game when Joe [Dumars] needs a break. I know I could start on just about any other team."
It's unlikely that Dumars would talk like that even under hypnosis. As teammate Scott Hastings said of him during the series, "Joe's the one everybody wants his son to be like," an honest, forthright gentleman with a quiet sense of humor and a keen intelligence. The joint strain of dealing with series pressure and his father's death finally got to him in Game 5, when he made only two of 13 shots; to be frank, he was bailed out by the shooting of Thomas and Johnson. After the game Dumars celebrated quietly, but in his eyes could be seen the mixed emotions he felt.
Clearly, Thomas was the honored guard of this series. Not only did he engineer the Piston offense, but he emerged as a most formidable defender, too. Only in Game 5, when Terry Porter made four of nine three-pointers, did Thomas permit his Portland quarterback counterpart to get in the flow. Porter, who made only 24 of his 61 field goal attempts against Detroit, did not choke. Isiah choked him.
Choking is exactly what some of his critics have felt like doing to Isiah over the years. After the uproar that followed his infamous statement in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, when he agreed with Rodman's contention that Boston's Larry Bird was overrated, Thomas has been astonishingly bland in his public pronouncements. While Johnson can ramble on about his own talents and the media consider him almost a folk hero because his beliefs are so honestly held and stated, Isiah comes across as a man of masks. But with his MVP performance (27.6 points, seven assists, 5.2 rebounds per game) in this year's Finals, there is no longer a doubt that he is one great player, the heart and soul of a club with a lot of heart and soul.
More than any other Piston, perhaps even more than Thomas himself, veteran center Bill Laimbeer seemed to realize the extent to which his close buddy's image stood to be refurbished by his masterful performance in the Finals. As the Pistons left the locker room last Thursday night, Laimbeer cornered a reporter. "Isiah's one of those special guys, right?" said Laimbeer. "You know it now, right? You don't play like that unless you're something special, one of the true greats, right?"
That is exactly the status to which the Pistons as a team have a right to aspire. A third straight title is certainly not out of the question. The veteran core of the club is by no means ancient, and McCloskey's track record is to make a stabilizing move or two that keeps Detroit ahead of the pack. But at week's end the Pistons had their minds on a few more immediate questions. Will they have to make what could be a difficult adjustment to a new coach? Will Vinnie be around? And, most important, has the Thomas story run its course? In the answers to all those questions lies the fate of a great team that could be even greater.