Pistons 69, Pacers 65
-- In the Detroit Pistons' heydays of the late 1980s, early '90s, they were known as the Bad Boys. Yet it was Indiana Pacers bad boy Ron Artest who opened the door for these modern-day Pistons to try to reclaim the glory of their two-time NBA champion predecessors.
Artest's ill-timed forearm to the jaw of guard Richard Hamilton with just under four minutes remaining resulted in a flagrant foul and four-point swing that gave the Pistons an insurmountable lead. It resulted in a 69-65 victory at the Palace, the Eastern Conference championship and a berth in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I don't know who made contact first, but I know when I went to go through the screen, I don't know if he hit me with a forearm or hit me with a fist, but he hit me with something," said Hamilton, who had 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. "It's nothing that hasn't happened to me before. It energized me. I'm happy I got hit."
Artest said he did not mean to crack Hamilton like he did and said Hamilton hit him first, leading to speculation the forearm was in retaliation.
"It was unintentional," said Artest, who is known for his very physical play. "He ran into me."
By virtue of knocking off the Pacers, 4-2, Detroit advanced to the Finals for the first time since it won its second straight NBA title in 1990. The series with the Lakers, whom the Pistons have played twice before in their three previous trips to the league finals, starts in Los Angeles on Sunday night. The Pistons and Lakers split the previous championship series.
This highly competitive game boiled down to the sequence where Artest, possibly in retaliation, forearmed the Pistons' leading scorer in clear view of officials. After Hamilton hit the floor and took a 30-second injury timeout, he made two free throws to give Detroit its first lead at 61-59.
The Pistons also were awarded possession of the ball and Rasheed Wallace followed Chauncey Billups's miss with a two-handed dunk that turned a low-scoring game in Detroit's favor.
"Certainly it was a tough call," said Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle, who coached the Pistons the past two seasons and got them to the Eastern Conference finals last season, only to fall to New Jersey and get fired because of supposed rifts with players, management and ownership. "I know that something happened. I think Hamilton did something. . . . It was tough to give up two free throws and a possession. It was a big part of the game."
The Pacers' loss soured a season in which they compiled an NBA-best 61-21 record and positioned themselves to have home-court advantage through the postseason. However, two losses to Detroit in Indiana gave the Pistons the chance to close the series out on their home court, where the crowd rallied behind them, even when they trailed by 14 after managing three field goals and 11 points in the first quarter.
"We feel real fortunate because we beat a really good team that's well coached," Detroit Coach Larry Brown said. "I don't know if it was a classic in a lot of people's eyes, but if the series is going to end this is the type of game it should have ended with."
Forward Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 20 points and tied Artest (11 points) with 10 rebounds. Rasheed Wallace had 11 points and 11 rebounds for Detroit and Ben Wallace added 12 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.
Detroit steadily battled back from its early deficit but never went on a run to get itself into the game until and 8-3 surge cut the deficit to 47-46 in the waning seconds of the third quarter. A three-pointer by Anthony Johnson as time expired in the quarter gave Indiana a 50-46 lead and quieted a crowd. However, a three-pointer by Pistons guard Billups (10 points) with 8 minutes 57 seconds remaining knotted the score at 54.
Reggie Miller answered with a three-pointer but Billups delivered from three-point range again to tie the game at 57. Johnson and Ben Wallace exchanged baskets to tie the score for third time in the quarter before Artest made the decision that altered the game.