We all got it wrong. The pundits, other players around the NBA, former players with encyclopedic knowledge of basketball, sage coaches who've pretty much seen everything, kids on the playgrounds, even the odds-makers in Las Vegas. We all thought it was a matter not of if the Los Angeles Lakers would win the NBA championship, but when. If you had Lakers in 7, that put you way out on a shaky limb. Most people had the Pistons lasting five games, six if they were good and lucky. And we all got it wrong. Bad wrong, loud wrong, way wrong.
The Detroit Pistons administered the Lakers a five-game beating, closing it out with a 100-87 win to put an exclamation point on a series that will go down in basketball history for its shock value and for Detroit's sheer dominance. Without a perennial all-star on the roster, the Pistons dismantled the Lakers in a way not even Coach Larry Brown and his players imagined. The Pistons played better, worked harder, were coached smarter, were more willing to sacrifice and personified what a team ought to be.
Meantime, the Lakers walked off the court here without their swagger. In the fourth quarter, they sat and sulked -- except Rick Fox, who stood and shouted encouragement all by his lonesome. Phil Jackson all but resigned as head coach when he said immediately after the game, "It's a pretty slim chance that I'll be coaching next year."
And he actually used the word "rebuild" when talking about the Lakers of the future. It had to be humiliating, for a group so outsized, to have their butts whipped for five games of the NBA Finals. After all, they were outplayed in Game 2, the only game they won, and were bailed out by Kobe Bryant's dramatic three-pointer to force overtime.
With Detroit up 29 early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers had plenty of time to contemplate how and why; in the case of a few of them, they fought each other with more passion than they ever fought the Pistons. Maybe the Lakers got what was coming to them, considering the way they cheated the game at times this season. It was unimaginable when they fielded four likely Hall of Famers that they would succumb so meekly to anybody.
Playing with a reduced Karl Malone or no Malone at all, as was the case in Game 5, was clearly a killer. Jackson said afterward: "We missed him a lot tonight. . . . We missed him the entire series."
Three Karl Malones, three 28-year-old Malones couldn't have helped the Lakers enough to get this series back to Los Angeles, much less even the score. But clearly, Jackson's assessment of Malone's absence was accurate. In the third and fourth quarters, there was Detroit's Ben Wallace dunking on their heads and snatching rebounds from them as if he were Wilt. He finished with 18 points and 22 rebounds. He beat Shaquille O'Neal and Slava Medvedenko to the ball as if they were wearing ankle weights.
Anywhere you look for an indication of who was hustling, who was playing harder, the Pistons beat the Lakers. Detroit won the rebounding, 50-36. Detroit outscored the Lakers in the paint, 52-38. Detroit scored more fast-break points, 23-15. The Pistons deserve everything they made of this series; so, too, do the Lakers, who in addition to everything else must suffer the ignominy of being the first team in modern history to lose all three middle games on the road in the NBA Finals.
And how sweet it must be for Larry Brown to win his first NBA championship, to become the first coach to win a title in the NCAA and the NBA, and to do it by beating a team coached by Jackson, the man still considered one of the two greatest coaches in league history, alongside the Celtics' Red Auerbach (who also has nine championship rings). How sweet it must be for Brown to have a team that gave him so much while being so low-maintenance as it was chasing a championship.
The Lakers, of course, were the polar opposite. Shaq ripped Kobe, Kobe ripped Shaq, Kobe ripped Phil, Phil ripped Kobe. It was fun stuff for columnists. The Lakers never left us looking for a story, did they? Phil's gone. Kobe's a free agent. Shaq said afterward he'll have to talk to management to see if he has a future in Los Angeles.
Perhaps it just all weighed a little bit too much when they played a team with no baggage like the Pistons, a group of players who didn't care to argue about whose team it is. The Lakers played Game 5 as tired as their story became. Shaq and Kobe, who really didn't have championship-caliber help, combined to make 14 of 34 shots. Kobe missed 14 of 21, and that's after missing 17 of 25 shots in Game 4. Can we officially stop with favorably comparing Kobe with Michael Jordan?
In the end, the Lakers looked like Mike Tyson, back in 1990 when Iron Mike, upon being flattened by Buster Douglas, crawled around the ring trying to find his mouthpiece while having no idea what exactly had hit him.
Shaq, Kobe and Jackson, perhaps in disbelief, offered far too little praise of the new champs, perhaps because they were still punch-drunk. Luckily, there were other Lakers who knew they'd played against a great team, even if it was completely without superstars.
On the eve of the series, the Lakers' Fox -- one of the smartest players in the league -- was asked about what was perceived to be the Pistons' one-dimensional, defense-only approach to the playoffs. And Fox said if the Lakers didn't treat the Pistons like the Baltimore Ravens, the Lakers would be in trouble. You might remember the Ravens had that reputation, too, and wound up romping through the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
The Lakers were put together, as Magic Johnson reminded everybody the other day, not just to reach the NBA Finals but to win the NBA Finals. Instead, they were throttled, beaten in a way you don't see every day in pro basketball by a better team with a clearer idea of what it takes to play championship basketball. It's hardly a Hollywood ending, but it's what they'll have to live with while they look jealously at a Pistons team infinitely more worthy of being called a champion.