Detroit Pieces Together Parts To Make a Whole
By Mike Wise
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page D01
AUBURN HILLS, Mich.
Isiah Thomas hugged his middle-aged Bad Boys and Rick Mahorn and John Salley cracked on old teammates like Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer. Ben Wallace, the guy they live vicariously through now, went even further back to pay homage -- unbraiding his cornrows, picking-out his voluminous afro before the big game.
Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and their basketball team may want to think twice about continuing to take part in Pistons Old Home Week. Here in the Detroit suburbs, in this impossibly loud building called The Palace, the Laker id is suffering.
The deficit had reached 20 by the time the video scoreboard showed Pistons' royalty in the fourth quarter -- Zeke, Ricky, Spider Salley and the Microwave. It came on a night the Palace of Auburn Hills hosted its first NBA Finals game in 14 years.
And while you wanted to buy into the nostalgia and chalk this 88-68 rout up to another disastrous road performance for America's most loved and loathed team, let's be honest about what Game 3 told us Thursday night: The Pistons are a better team. Not more talented or more experienced. Simply better -- more synchronized, confident, healthier and clearly on their way to a major upset the way this best-of-seven series is proceeding.
It is inconceivable to think of Shaq and Kobe, the two most accomplished players in the game at their respective positions, as being not up to the task of inferior offensive players from the Eastern Conference. But it is happening -- it has been for three games now.
O'Neal barked afterward about the Lakers "making it hard on themselves," and even took umbrage with Phil Jackson not employing the talents of bench veterans like Bryon Russell and Rick Fox. A cadre of young players, ranging from Luke Walton to Brian Cook, were ineffective. The Lakers fell in love with the 3-point shot, making just 6 of 27 beyond the arc.
But this perception about the Lakers needing to get their act together is dying. This is not about the Lakers' inability to execute. Three games in, the NBA Finals have become a referendum on how underrated and talented the Detroit Pistons are.
Tayshaun Prince never fell for any of those Bryant ball-fakes that lose lesser defenders.
For parts of provincial Lakerville, losing Game 1 was a blip, the way losing Game 1 to Larry Brown's Philadelphia 76ers was a blip in 2001. The Lakers went on to win the three road games and the series in five. But the Pistons under Brown are not Allen Iverson and a banged-up, injury-depleted supporting cast. They are bigger, they play more physical, their arms are longer and they are younger than the 76ers were in 2001. And unlike that team, the Pistons won Game 3 and are now only two wins from a stunning upset in the little world of sport.
Rip Hamilton carved up the Lakers Thursday, outscoring Bryant 31 to 11. Actually, knifing through the middle of the purple-and-gold, he almost looked like Thomas more than a decade ago.
Prior to the game, the little man they call "Zeke" reminisced about the time he played with a fractured ankle, when he was so hurt he could barely make it downcourt against the Lakers in 1988.
"I knew when I went down I had to get back up and play, because I'd been chasing a championship for so long and I just didn't know if I would ever get back," Thomas said. "Karl Malone is the same way. He has to play.
"He's waited too long for this."
Malone played on a torn ligament in his right knee, however much that makes sense. He gingerly ran upcourt, made a few jump shots and tried to play post defense on Detroit's larger players.
When he was physically shot, the Lakers were reduced to a group of disorganized ballplayers, who appeared as if they were put together by someone at a community center in need of one more run before the lights were turned off.
There is a thought out there that Joe Dumars, Thomas's old back-court mate and now the team's president of basketball operations, has constructed a new NBA championship model, acquiring reclamation projects and nice complimentary players until a genuine team develops -- sort of like hockey, without a hot goaltender.
But the idea of an unskilled offensive player like Ben Wallace or Hamilton being a champion's best player is almost insulting to every MVP candidate who led his team to a title. Common NBA wisdom says if you have two horses -- Michael-and-Scottie, Magic-and-Kareem, Duncan-and-Robinson, Shaq-and-Kobe -- you usually get the ring.
These Pistons? Not so much. Sure, Hamilton is an all-star in waiting, but as of this moment he is a slasher with a sweet mid-range game. A nice player, but not a star.
Detroit has a nice alibi in case this whole plan comes up short. Every observer who wondered what was wrong with the Lakers will conclude they found their heart and their rhythm before the season expired.
The problem with that logic is, it discounts what is happening here under Larry Brown, in this outdated arena that is short on amenities and luxury boxes but awfully large on cohesive basketball teams and crazed, rowdy fans.
So much for the carryover from Bryant's clutch three-pointer that rescued the Lakers in Game 2. Leaving Staples Center that evening, the Pistons had to know they were the better team for two games, and now they know something else.
Holding the Lakers to the fewest points in their postseason history, blowing them out like no other team in their illustrious playoff history, the Pistons are poised to pull off one of the more defining upsets in league annals, forearming their way to a title, like the old Bad Boys.
Bill Laimbeer, in fact, once tried to humanize himself at the finals, explaining he was not just a brute of a player but also a devoted husband and father, with a wife and lovely children. To which the fine columnist Joe Hamelin wrote, "My God . . . He reproduces?"
The Bad Boys all had children, got new jobs and purchased fine Italian wool after retirement. And now, as Detroit royalty, they sit in the stands, watching players called Prince, Big Ben and Rip -- and hope beyond hope that Old Home Week keeps the Lakers in misery.
This series is going six and, maybe, seven games. And if Detroit goes back to Los Angeles with a 3-2 series lead, the Pistons come back with the trophy. Because this is no longer about what the star-laden Lakers are not doing, this is about what the better team, shockingly from Detroit, is doing.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company