Gritty Pistons grind down L.A.

Posted: Monday, June 07, 2004

LOS ANGELES Forget about the NBA Finals being a mismatch or a walkover.

The Detroit Pistons, with their sometimes ugly and often unorthodox style of play, proved they're going to be anything but easy to solve.

Controlling the tempo and shocking a star-studded crowd, the team that tamed the Eastern Conference pulled off a stunner in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 87-75.

There was no way to make much sense of what happened to the Lakers, prohibitive favorites whose own indifference and inconsistency have often been their worst enemies. Los Angeles got an enormous effort from Shaquille O'Neal 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting but didn't get the ball into his hands nearly enough.

Kobe Bryant was as much to blame as anyone, playing a poor fourth quarter in which he sapped the energy from the Lakers' only rally by missing consecutive 3-pointers just when it appeared O'Neal was about to bring Los Angeles back from a 13-point deficit.

But there were others equally at fault, most noticeably the ringless due of veteran newcomers Karl Malone (four points on 2-for-9 shooting ) and Gary Payton (three points, 1-for-4).

Chauncey Billups scored 22 points for the Pistons on a night when their usual main offensive weapon, Richard Hamilton, was held to just 12 points. Rasheed Wallace added 14 points and Tayshaun Price had 11 for the Pistons, who showed little joy at the final buzzer as many in the disgusted home crowd were already out the exit ramps and racing to the parking lot.

They expected much more from a team trying to win its fourth title in five years, but the Lakers showed them nothing.

Detroit outscored Los Angeles 46-34 in the second half, taking control early in the third quarter and keeping the Lakers at bay the rest of the way. When Los Angeles missed two shots with 30 seconds left, the fans even booed a bit.

Bryant finished 10-for-27 from the field, going 2-for-7 in the fourth quarter while O'Neal was 4-for-4.

No one else on Los Angeles scored more than five points, while the Pistons had eight players who scored at least that many.

''I don't want them to be satisfied about winning the first game here,'' Pistons coach Larry Brown said. ''We want to win the second game.''

A hint of what was in store came early in the second half with the uncommon sound of nearly 20,000 people gasping in unison. Two foul shots by Rasheed Wallace, a soaring tip-in by Ben Wallace and a 3-pointer by ex-Laker Lindsey Hunter gave Detroit a 71-58 lead.

A chant of ''Here we go Lakers'' welcomed them back onto the court after a timeout, and The Big Bystander finally started getting the ball in his hands. Consecutive baskets by O'Neal made it 73-64 before Bryant missed the two 3s in a row.

O'Neal scored four of the Lakers' next six points and made it 77-70 on a short jumper from the corner with 4 minutes left, but he didn't shoot again and barely touched the ball.

After Bryant's 3-pointer made it 83-75 with 1:10 left, Ben Wallace was left wide open off a screen a roll and nailed an 18-footer for a 10-point lead.

Game 2 will be Tuesday night, and a lot more people will be taking the Pistons a lot more seriously.

''They brought the ball down with patience and executed each possession they wanted to over 24 seconds. It all worked out in their favor,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ''We came out flat in the third quarter. They had us on our heels.''

Early on, the need to feed the ball to O'Neal was so obvious that the crowd even let out a mock cheer when the Lakers after forcing up a couple of bad early shots got it to him in the low post.

O'Neal scored his 10th point while drawing Rasheed Wallace's second foul with 4:17 left in the first quarter, and he reached 20 on two foul shots with 1:58 left before halftime for a 39-36 lead.

But as much as the give-it-to-Shaq strategy was working, the Lakers didn't stick with it.

O'Neal took only one of the Lakers' first eight shots in the third quarter, and the Pistons began taking advantage of mismatches when they had the ball. Prince posted up Payton and scored easily, and Ben Wallace calmly stroked a 14-footer when O'Neal failed to go out and defend him on a pick-and-roll, giving the Pistons a 52-45 lead.

Payton answered with a 3-pointer for his first basket of the game, but Malone missed a jumper on Los Angeles' next possession making him 0-for-6. Malone finally broke his drought with a layup off a nifty entry pass by Bryant with 4:26 left in the third quarter, and O'Neal dunked on the next possession for his first points of the period, making it 56-52.

O'Neal had a dunk and a bank shot over the remainder of the period, but the Pistons answered each of the Lakers baskets' and took a 64-58 lead into the fourth quarter behind 20 points from Billups.



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