Pistons 100, Lakers 87
From improbable underdogs to NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons turned the pro basketball world upside down with their 100-87 drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers in the fifth and final game of the NBA Finals on Tuesday at the jam-packed, rip-roaring Palace of Auburn Hills.
Ben Wallace dominated the interior, Richard Hamilton and finals most valuable player Chauncey Billups overran the Lakers' back court and the Pistons systematically and overwhelmingly took apart the heavily favored Lakers from the supposedly dominant Western Conference, four games to one. By capping its title run in such impressive fashion, Detroit, which led by as many as 29, won its first championship since 1990 and brought the title back to the Eastern Conference for the first time since 1998.
"It's crazy, it's unbelievable man," said Hamilton, who had a team-high 21 points. "It still hasn't sunk in yet. The guys in that locker room, our team, believe. We said to ourselves that anything is possible if you play together as five, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end."
The outcome of these finals proved an incredible convergence of glory, disappointment, history and chaos, one that could galvanize one already unified franchise while tearing down the other to its bare-bones.
Detroit's Larry Brown, considered the best coach to never have won an NBA title, filled the only incomplete line on his 32-year coaching resume and now holds the distinction of being the only coach to win pro and collegiate titles (Kansas, 1988).
Brown said former Pistons coach Chuck Daly told him "that when you finally do win one, you won't appreciate it until you're driving down the highway one day and you'll get a big grin on your face. I had that feeling when I coached Kansas. I'm sure I'm going to have it now."
Brown, the nomadic hoops teacher, grabbed the championship ring Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had hoped would occupy his one vacant finger.
It was as clean a heist as his team's robbery of the Lakers' mystique.
As for Jackson, he gave every indication that this was his final run with the Lakers. Since taking over in 1999-2000, he guided Los Angeles to three championships in four finals appearances. But off-and-on squabbles with stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and the stress of trying to manage egos, appear to have him set to leave, voluntarily or not.
"Right now, I would say that it's a pretty slim chance," Jackson said of remaining with the Lakers. "Maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up."
Los Angeles's star-studded lineup of Shaquille O'Neal (20 points), Kobe Bryant (24 points), Karl Malone and Gary Payton (two points) -- a four-man list of incomparable talent -- was hardly a match for Detroit's team of castoffs. Now, the Pistons could be the model franchise of the NBA.
"We came into this series and nobody gave us a chance but we felt we had a great chance," Billups said. "We knew it would be a tough task but we felt we were a better team. They may have better individual players but we felt we had the best cohesiveness in the league."
The Pistons became the first home team to win all three finals games in the 2-3-2 format. They got a pregame boost when Malone finally succumbed to the right knee sprain that has limited his productivity since Game 1, when he aggravated an injury that sidelined him for more than 30 regular season games. Slava Medvedenko started in his place.
Compounding things, O'Neal got in early foul trouble, leaving the Lakers vulnerable inside. The Pistons went for the jugular right away, staking a 55-45 halftime lead, an impressive point total for a team not known for its ability to score.
The Pistons put the game out of reach with a third-quarter dismantling of the Lakers. Detroit took an 82-59 lead going into the final period by outscoring Los Angeles 27-14 in the third.
From there, all that was left was the celebration. The ready-to-party crowd spent most of the final quarter on its feet, nudging closer to the court, framing the memorable picture of its team using the Lakers as a welcome mat to history.
"They played extremely well, they were coached extremely well and executed extremely well," Bryant said. "They played hard. They played the right way and they're deserving of the championship this year."
The partying will continue in Detroit for a while. Things won't be so rosy in Los Angeles.
"This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people," O'Neal said. "Everyone's going to take care of his own business, people are going to do what's best for them, including me."
Malone, 40, who left Utah after 18 seasons to ride the Lakers' coattails to a title run, could retire or opt out of his contract and play elsewhere. Same with Payton, who spent most of his 14 NBA seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Bryant reiterated after the game that he plans to opt out of his contract, just weeks before he goes on trial in Colorado on sexual assault chargers that could land him behind bars.