Frank Sinatra said of New York, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Back in 1984, Kelly Tripucka, a blossoming forward for the Detroit Pistons, took “Ol Blue Eyes” at his word.
Back then the Pistons were a young team that excited dazzled throughout the NBA with their scoring. This was years before the “Bad Boys” tag was applied when the team made playing defense into an art form. No, the Tripucka Pistons were a scoring juggernaut. With Isiah Thomas, John Long, Vinnie Johnson, Terry Tyler, Cliff Levingston, and a three-point shooting center named Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons averaged more than 117 points per game.
Just a few months earlier, in December, the Pistons had won the highest scoring game in league history, outshooting the Denver Nuggets in triple overtime, 186-184. Tripucka scored all 12 of the Pistons’ points in the second overtime of that contest.
The Pistons were the #4 seed in the playoffs, earning a matchup with the Knicks. The first two games were played at the Silverdome, the Knicks winning the opener and Detroit evening the series in Game Two. Game Three was played at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 22. With the bright lights shining on them, the Pistons and Knicks lined up for a crucial contest with the eyes of the basketball universe upon them.
The Knicks charged out to a lead, but the Pistons, fueled by the daring dashes to the hole by Isiah, hung close at half time. Tripucka had 16 points, but he would find his groove in the second half.
Tripucka banged in his first five shots of the second half, also cleaning up at the free throw line. But New York center Bill Cartwright tossed in a pair of baseline shots at the end of the third to give the Knicks a four-point edge. Tripucka wasn’t done. In the fourth quarter, with Isiah dishing him the ball on the wing, Tripucka banged in three quick jumpers and then scored on a drive to his right past Cartwright. The Pistons led with 5:25 left and Tripucka had 34 points.
Unfortunately, the bright lights were too much for the Pistons down the stretch. New York guard Rory Sparrow banked in a runner and Cartwright scored on a put back to stretch the Knick lead to nine. The Pistons got within five, but ended up losing Game Three, 120-113.
But Tripucka had enjoyed an incredible game, scoring 40 points, a new franchise record for a playoff road game. No Piston, not even when they were playing under the Fort Wayne banner. Tripucka, who had never met a shot he didn’t want to take, had been good on most of his attempts, but it wasn’t enough to defeat the home team.
In Game Four, Tripucka and the Pistons evened the series, beating the Knicks in The Garden, 119-112. It would be in Game Five where Isiah and Bernard King, the Knicks’ high-scoring forward, would trade baskets in an amazing finish. The Knicks would win the series, eliminating the Pistons in five hard-fought games.
But Tripucka’s performance was a shot across the bow. The Pistons were a team to be reckoned with. Within a few years they would be in the Conference Finals, and then on to the NBA Finals. Tripucka wouldn’t be there – the Pistons would trade him to Utah for Adrian Dantley – but his performance in the ’84 Playoffs will always hold a place in franchise lore. No Piston since has scored as many as 40 points on the road in the playoffs.