AUBURN HILLS, Mich., June 13 -- The Los Angeles Lakers may have mystique and lofty credentials, but the Detroit Pistons have poise, focus and the NBA Finals by the throat.
The Pistons moved one win away from denying arguably the best assemblage of top-heavy talent -- at least on paper -- from claiming its fourth championship in five years by posting an 88-80 victory Sunday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Detroit's Mike James glides to the basket in between Los Angeles' Rick Fox, left, and Kobe Bryant during the Pistons' 88-80 victory Sunday night.
(Paul Sancya - AP)
Up three games to one in the best-of-seven series, the final game of the season -- and the final game of the Western Conference's five-year reign as king of the NBA -- could be played Tuesday in suburban Detroit.
"I've been in the other locker room," Pistons Coach Larry Brown said about being down against insurmountable odds in the NBA Finals.
"All I'm telling them is we've got to continue to try to play the right way and defend and rebound and share the ball. Whatever happens, happens. They've got a coach who won nine championships; only one other guy has done that [Red Auerbach] and he's pretty special. They have got two of the greatest players in the game that are in their prime, so we can't take anything for granted."
No home team has won three consecutive games in the 2-3-2 playoff format and the Lakers have shown the capacity to go on an extended run of wins, as they proved in taking four straight victories over the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals a few weeks ago.
But this series looks all but over. Detroit has controlled all but a few bad minutes at the end of Game 2, allowing the Lakers to pull out a 99-91 overtime victory. The Lakers have yet to play a cohesive game -- in Game 4 they once again went long stretches without getting the ball to center Shaquille O'Neal (36 points, 20 rebounds), who had his way nearly every time he touched the ball -- and forward Karl Malone finally succumbed to his sprained right knee, failing to play the final 22 minutes.
Meantime, Rasheed Wallace had a team-high 26 points and matched center Ben Wallace with 13 rebounds. Guard Chauncey Billups continued his strong series, scoring 23 points, including two big three-pointers midway through the final quarter that began a surge that led to an 11-point lead too great to overcome.
With the Pistons rolling ahead, the capacity crowd stayed on its feet for the final five minutes, forming an imposing cocoon around a team that started as an ugly worm and has blossomed to a team on the cusp of bringing the franchise back to the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A victory would not only bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to the East for the first time since the Chicago Bulls knocked off the Utah Jazz in 1998 to cap their second run of three consecutive titles, it would give Brown his first NBA championship.
The Lakers, meantime, barely have a pulse. Kobe Bryant, whose wide-eyed and often-poor shot selection frequently stalled the Lakers' offense, particularly in the second quarter after O'Neal dominated the opening period, finished with 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting.
"My shot selection, some of them were good and some of them stunk," Bryant said. "That's pretty much every game with me."
No other Los Angeles player scored in double figures, a trend that has held firm in all four games of this series. Detroit guard Richard Hamilton finished with 17 points and the Pistons out-rebounded the Lakers 45-38.
Detroit continued its search for offense in the third quarter and while its quest proved rather futile, it cranked up things on the defensive end to level the whole context of the game and go into the fourth quarter with the score tied at 56.
Things have gotten so desperate, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson fell back on blaming the officials for some of the team's woes: "These guys want an even shake out there on the floor so that's the part that is -- my sales job is convincing them to go out there and play a game that they get an even break on the court and feel like they are not playing from an uphill standpoint."
The Pistons made just 12 of 37 shots (32 percent) in the first half but connected on 17 of 23 free throws. Los Angeles converted 43 percent of its shots but got to the line just eight times, an offshoot of settling for jump shots, including seven three-point attempts, of which one went through the net.
"We played a real good game and got caught off-guard in the fourth quarter and were not able to handle the run they made," Jackson said. "Give credit to the Pistons. They handled the adversity of Shaq's great game and kept their composure."
The Lakers' biggest fault, though, was their reluctance to get the ball to O'Neal in the second quarter. The Big Presence made all five of his first-quarter shots and three more in the early part of the second period. However, once Bryant checked back into the game with 6 minutes 31 seconds remaining in the half, the ball stopped moving and Bryant began shooting. He rarely looked inside, except to see if there was a path for him to drive.
Bryant saved himself, and got Los Angeles within two, when he nailed a deep three-pointer out of desperation as the shot-clock horn expired with 23 seconds left in the half. The Lakers' head-scratching play in the second quarter came after a first quarter they opened with the energy of a team knowing it had to make an immediate statement.
"I think everybody is a little down right now," Bryant said. "The important thing is we have to win the next game. It's a one-game series."