Detroit Pistons flat-out better than Lakers in 2004. They proved it in Game 1 of NBA Finals

Marlowe Alter
Detroit Free Press

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The Game

June 6, 2004: Game 1 of NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

Setting the stage

The Lakers (56-26) won four straight over defending champion San Antonio — including Derek Fisher's iconic shot at the buzzer in Game 5 — to win the West semifinal series, then defeated No. 1 seed Minnesota in six games to reach the Finals for the fourth time in five seasons.

The Pistons (54-28) knocked off two-time reigning East champion New Jersey in seven games in the semis, then outlasted Indiana, the team with the NBA's best record, in six games to win the East.

Detroit Pistons' Richard Hamilton takes a charging foul against Los Angeles' Kareem Rush in the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Sunday, June 6, 2004 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The Pistons and Lakers split mid-November games, but nobody gave the Pistons a chance in the Finals — the Lakers were minus-700 favorites, meaning a bettor would have to put down $700 to win $100.

"A lot of people think they will sweep," ABC's Al Michaels said on the opening broadcast of Game 1.

Starting lineups

Pistons: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace.

Lakers: Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Devean George, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal.

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Upset? The best team won

Sweep, huh?

The only thing L.A. won on this night was the ceremonial opening tip from Magic Johnson.

Billed as the superteam vs. a team of role players, it was the new-age Goin' to Work Pistons playing the role of spoiler and demanding respect after a convincing 87-75 win.

Chauncey Billups is dwarfed by Shaquille O'Neal during the third quarter in Game 1.

Chauncey Billups led the charge with 22 points, looking for his shot early out of isolation and the pick-and-roll, and attacking his point guard counterparts Gary Payton and Derek Fisher, helping the Pistons overcome a dominant Shaquille O’Neal.

The plan was to limit L.A’s role players and play its two stars straight up, with few double-teams.

It worked: O’Neal and Kobe Bryant combined for 59 of the 75 points, as the Lakers’ other Hall of Famers — the aging Payton and Karl Malone — came up small (seven points, 3-for-13 shooting combined).

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O’Neal, who entered averaging 34.2 points on 60% shooting in 19 career Finals games, showed his usual dominance, dwarfing Ben Wallace, scoring the first eight for L.A. and  finished with 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting. Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince smothered Bryant, cutting off driving lanes to force tough, long 2-pointers.

Detroit Pistons' Chauncey Billups ties up Los Angeles Lakers' Derek Fisher during the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Sunday, June 6, 2004, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“We’re still trying to get a feel for their rhythm,” Bryant said during his ABC halftime interview.

“It’s kind of like two heavyweight boxers feeling each other out.”

The Lakers, who had gone through a tumultuous season to get here, were unaccustomed to grimy Eastern Conference basketball and never found that rhythm. With the Pistons packing the paint like a mosh pit, Bryant kept hoisting contested jumpers and shot 10-for-27 for 25 points — 2-for-12 when guarded by Prince in the half-court.

The unsung hero of Game 1 was Elden Campbell, one of only two Pistons who previously played in the Finals — the Lakers entered the series with 100 games of Finals experience to the Pistons’ six, between Campbell and Lindsey Hunter.

Former Laker Rick Fox in 2015: We knew the Pistons would expose us

With O’Neal overpowering Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace with two fouls on the bench, the 35-year-old Campbell came in midway through the opening quarter. He spent two-plus seasons in the late ‘90s on the Lakers with Shaq, and his experience showed, using solid positioning and size to make life tougher on the Big Diesel (six turnovers).

Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace tries to defend Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal during the first quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Sunday, June 6, 2004, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Offensively, Campbell threw nice bounce passes to cutters and hit a few jumpers. In 18 minutes, he collected six points, four assists, a rebound, two blocks, two steals and just one foul.

The Pistons’ bench outplayed and outscored L.A.’s 19-4. Corliss Williamson (seven points) helped keep the Pistons’ offense afloat in the first half, as an uncharacteristically awful Richard Hamilton — the team’s leading scorer in both the regular season and each of the three previous playoff series — was hounded everywhere by Bryant, his friend and former high school rival.

Hamilton committed five of his six turnovers in the first half; Detroit’s 10 first-half turnovers led to 15 Lakers points, allowing them a 41-40 halftime lead despite a poor half-court offense.

Rasheed Wallace played eight minutes in the first half, but started the second just as he had on the game’s opening possession: drilling a 3-pointer from the wing, and the Pistons led the rest of the way.

Remembering one of the most devastating losses in Detroit sports history ]

Any time the Lakers made a small run, the Pistons answered with a bucket.

And yes, the basketball gods seemed to be looking out on the Pistons in the second half. Two instances stand out:

Midway through the third, Prince gathered a Ben Wallace air ball under the hoop, dribbled toward the corner, turned and floated a contested 20-footer that kissed the glass softly at the shot-clock buzzer, bailing out a horrendous possession.

In the fourth, Billups threw a pass off Prince’s back — he wasn't looking — that Bryant nearly stole but kicked back to Billups in the backcourt. Seconds later, Prince sank a 3 from the corner, halting an 8-1 Lakers run for a 77-68 lead with 4:21 remaining.

The Pistons kept O’Neal off the foul line for the second half after he was 8-for-12 in the first.

The loss put Lakers coach Phil Jackson's unfathomable postseason records in unfamiliar territory: He entered 9-0 in Finals series and 35-0 in a playoff series with home-court advantage.

“Ain’t nobody scared here. Ain’t no punks on this team!” Rasheed Wallace said a day earlier.

Funny, it was L.A. that earned more than a scare in Game 1.

"Take That, L.A.!" screamed the next morning's Free Press headline.

Follow Marlowe Alter on Twitter: @Marlowe Alter. Email him: malter@freepress.com.