Pistons 88, Lakers 68
It started with nostalgia. It ended in a rout. And in between, the Detroit Pistons seized the lead in these NBA Finals on Thursday night with a dominating 88-68 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3.
Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace spearheaded the drubbing. The Pistons have a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 set for Sunday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Pistons' victory showed there was no hangover from their crushing overtime loss in Game 2. That loss included a staggering six-point collapse in the final 35 seconds of regulation and Kobe Bryant's stunning three-pointer to force overtime.
In Game 3, the only closing-seconds drama was whether the Lakers' suddenly-anemic attack could crack 70 points. It couldn't -- and Los Angeles' total was its lowest in the storied franchise's postseason history and third-lowest in NBA playoff history.
"I don't think we reacted well," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "Detroit beat us to the basketball. At halftime I told the team I don't think we can play any worse than we played in the first half, as far as shooting the ball and executing in the open floor. But we tried hard in the second half to duplicate it."
Before that tip, the Pistons honored their back-to-back title-winning Bad Boy teams of 15 years ago. One of those teams beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. These new Pistons, if they continue the form they showed in Game 3, appear poised to follow suit.
Detroit led by double figures from early in the second half and never allowed the Lakers to challenge for any type of comeback. The Pistons' aggressive offensive approach left Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal in foul trouble and their air-tight defense snuffed out Bryant (11 points) and O'Neal (14), whose combined efforts were still short of Hamilton's game-high 31 points.
"We did a great job of playing connected. Guys did a great job of really playing together," Hamilton said.
Detroit shot 41 percent, had big men Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace total 21 rebounds and had Billups (19 points) key a third-quarter surge that greased the skids to the Pistons' rout.
"I'm shocked," Pistons Coach Larry Brown said. "We played so good defensively. We kept people in front of us. We limited them to one shot for the most part. We held them to 68 points, shooting 40 percent, for us, that is an incredible accomplishment."
Though the margin of victory might be somewhat surprising, it's becoming increasingly clear the Lakers should no longer be seen as heavy favorites in this series.
"We're faced with a heck of a challenge now being down 2-1 and to have two games on their home floor," Bryant said. "What it boiled down to is we didn't execute. . . . Offensively, they didn't shoot the ball particularly well, but we gave them a lot of second-chance opportunities, and we put them to the line a lot."
Compounding the Lakers' woes, forward Karl Malone's sprained right knee limited him to five points and 18 minutes, which actually was more than they expected, since his playing status was in question until tip-off. There was no magic from the bench, as rookie Luke Walton got into foul trouble and guards Kareem Rush and Derek Fisher failed to get into any type of flow.
Detroit, behind the hot shooting of Billups, blew to a 14-point lead within the first four minutes of the third quarter, further energizing the already charged crowd and leaving the Lakers looking for answers.
"They beat us to everything tonight," O'Neal said. "They played a little bit better defense. Once again we had a horrible third quarter, but this is only one game."
Jackson, trying to generate anything and to provide some relief for O'Neal, went deep into his bench, tapping seldom-used rookie Brian Cook, along with Walton, Fisher and Slava Medvedenko, leaving Bryant as the only starter on the court for the final few minutes of the third.
The junked-up lineup threw the Pistons off for a minute, and the Lakers got to 60-49, but a three-point play from Hamilton, which was answered by a late fast-break layup from Fisher, left Detroit with a 63-51 edge going into the game's final 12 minutes.
The Lakers needed a big closing quarter. They didn't get it.
In fact, they failed to score 20 points in any quarter, and now they have until Sunday to find some answers.