So apparently, it wasn't just bad offense that doomed the Bucks, the Nets and the Pacers when they played the Pistons in the NBA playoffs. Apparently, Detroit's defense isn't just hype. The Pistons dismantled the Lakers' Hall of Fame offense in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And it wasn't just a physical superiority the Pistons exhibited. Coach Larry Brown decided that while the Lakers may have the two best players on the court, in Shaq and Kobe, those two alone couldn't beat his team, no matter how many points they scored.
While Shaquille O'Neal made 13 of 16 shots and scored a game-high 34 points and Kobe Bryant scored 25, no other Laker scored more than five points. That's right, the Pistons' defense pitched a virtual shutout against the rest of the Lakers. Karl Malone and Gary Payton, in the celebrated quest for their first NBA title, went 3 for 13 with no free throws. Both were on the bench in the fourth quarter.
Malone, after having fluid drained from his knee, was nowhere near the player he'd been against San Antonio and Minnesota. And with no real contribution from Malone or from Derek Fisher, who was also fighting a sprained knee, the Lakers appeared quite ordinary. Other than Shaq and Kobe, the rest of the Lakers made 6 of 30 shots.
It was downright feeble, the Lakers' offense, and Brown's strategy of holding everybody else down worked to perfection, at least for one night.
Asked if he was surprised by the defensive superiority, Brown said, "Yeah. To hold them to 75 points, I think is a pretty incredible defensive performance. I don't know if we could ever defend better. We did an unbelievable job. I think that's what it's going to take."
So, on a night when Rasheed Wallace played just 29 minutes because of foul trouble and when leading scorer Richard Hamilton missed 11 of 16 shots and scored just 12 points, the Pistons boldly walked into Staples Center and took Game 1 from the Lakers, 87-75. They made it look easy. It would have been more lopsided had the Pistons not missed so many layups and free throws.
"I don't want them feeling our oats because we came in here and won the first game," Brown said.
But how could they not? Brown already sounded the caution tone, reminding everybody who would listen that his 76ers won Game 1 here three years ago but lost the series, 4-1. But the Sixers didn't play this impressively in any game that series.
It had to be a little ominous to hear Phil Jackson say afterward that "Kobe had a hard time shooting over Prince." Detroit's 6-foot-9, long-armed Tayshaun Prince scored only 11 points, but he was all over Kobe, who needed 27 shots to score his 25 points.
It figured Detroit would play stifling defense. But the Pistons also scored more points in Game 1 against the Lakers than they scored in any of the seven games against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
"This puts a lot of pressure on us for the next game," Shaq said.
The folks picking the Lakers to simply run over the Pistons are doing so by and large because they believe Detroit will be totally and completely overwhelmed by Shaq. And that's not without some foundation. Rasheed Wallace may be 6-11, but he's slight. Shaq only outweighs him by 130 pounds. And while Ben Wallace is a rebounding machine, at 6-9 he's closer in build to Dennis Rodman than he is to Shaq.
Beyond that, Detroit is countering Shaq with Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur. Oh, let's not forget 6-7 Corliss Williamson. There's nobody in that rotation who is going to slow down Shaq, as was evident by the way he scored so easily.
Not only that, but Shaq has played the best basketball of his life, unarguably, in the NBA Finals. After being nullified by Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995, Shaq in 2000 averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds per game in a six-game Lakers victory over the Indiana Pacers, and he had three 40-point games in that series.
In 2001 he didn't score as much in the Lakers' victory over Philly (33 points per game), but he grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked three shots per game. And in 2002, as a pretty strong encore, Shaq averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds and appeared to barely exert himself in the Lakers' sweep of the New Jersey Nets.
For all of this talk about who's team it is, Kobe's or Shaq's, the fact is that in the most important games, it's O'Neal who's the best player on the court. He has scored 25 points or more in 20 straight NBA Finals games, something only Michael Jordan has done. And the big man picked up where he left off two years ago in Sunday's Game 1.
Even so, when Lindsey Hunter fired in a three-pointer two minutes into the third fourth quarter, the Pistons found themselves ahead, 71-58, with limited contributions from Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton, who simply will not play this badly again in this series.
So imagine how good it must feel to win such a game if you're the Pistons, knowing you can play better in Game 2. Suddenly, talk of a short series has quieted, though the Pistons are hardly surprised.
"I don't look at us as the underdogs," Brown said. "How can you be a coach going into the locker room [thinking that]? The kids play 82 games for you, and you get into the [Finals] and you walk in and act like you're the underdog? I would never want to be in that position. We recognize that they have got a coach who has won nine championships, that they have arguably the most dominant big player and a young kid who is phenomenal. But our players look at themselves as pretty special in their own right and that's the way I approach it as a coach."
And if the Los Angeles Lakers don't approach it the same way Monday in practice and Tuesday night here in Game 2, the presumptive champs are going to be in a world of trouble.