Pistons take commanding lead

Monday, June 14, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Poised and primed for a title, the Detroit Pistons took care of business while the Lakers lost their tempers.

Building a lead early in the fourth quarter, holding it the rest of the way and repelling every Los Angeles rally, the Pistons moved one victory closer to their first championship in 14 years with a convincing 88-80 victory Sunday night in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

With a 3-1 lead, Detroit has made one thing crystal clear: It is the better of these two basketball teams, winning without egos and superstars -- and the problems that come with them.

These were some of the scenes that Pistons' fans will cherish: Chauncey Billups making timely 3-pointers, Rasheed Wallace backpedalling downcourt with a minute left after making a jumper that capped his best game of the playoffs; Richard Hamilton calmly knocking down free throws.

As for the Lakers, the snapshots were these: Kobe Bryant screaming at the referees and picking up a late technical foul; Shaquille O'Neal yelling at someone in the Lakers' huddle, most likely Bryant, for failing to get him the ball; Karl Malone staying parked on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, a nonfactor again.

It's almost over for these Lakers, their breakup possibly coming in the next week.

Game 5 is Tuesday night, and the Pistons could become the first team to bring the title back to the Eastern Conference since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won it in 1998.

Wallace scored 26, Billups had 23 and Hamilton 17 to lead the Pistons, who outscored the Lakers 32-24 in the fourth quarter.

O'Neal had 36 and Bryant 20 for the Lakers, whose dysfunctional two-man show isn't enough to keep up with Detroit's depth and determination.

No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, and the Lakers seemed ill-equipped to become the first.

O'Neal took 21 shots and made 16, and he might have doubled those totals if his teammates had gotten him the ball more often. But Bryant somehow found it necessary to launch 14 attempts in the first half and 25 overall, many of which were both unwise and off-target.

No one else on the Lakers had more than eight points, and Los Angeles again was outrebounded and plagued by fouls.

Detroit made 29 field goals and 28 foul shots and scored 21 points on the fast break in what was the closest game of the series until the Pistons broke it open with a 7-0 run for a 77-67 lead with 4:52 left. The Lakers got no closer than seven the rest of the way as the Pistons made shots -- whether from the field or the foul line -- when they needed them.

It was widely expected that Jackson would change his starting lineup or rotations, especially after five of the Lakers' veterans -- O'Neal, Bryant, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Devean George -- had an off-day conference with Jackson in a restroom at The Palace, pleading with him to put his trust in them since they know his triangle offense best.

But Jackson went with his usual starting five, turning to Fox as his first substitution after George picked up two quick fouls. Later, he went to a small lineup with Fisher and Payton together in the backcourt and Bryant at small forward.

Though the Lakers botched their first couple of possessions, they quickly began getting the ball to O'Neal deep in the low post. His first two shots were dunks, his next two were 5-footers from either side of the basket, and the fifth was an alley-oop dunk. O'Neal went 5-for-5 in a first quarter that ended with the Lakers ahead 22-21.

After missing a shot, O'Neal hit his next two midway through the second quarter and yelled "Try to stop that!" to no one in particular with an animated expression on his face. The pace of the quarter was slow thanks to 16 fouls before Mike James took control and ran two fast breaks by himself, converting both times to help Detroit to a 41-39 halftime lead.

Wallace began to carry the Pistons in the third quarter, dominating his matchup with Slava Medvedenko after Karl Malone left the game. A late 6-0 run by the Lakers, ending with a steal and dunk by Bryant, produced a 56-56 deadlock entering the final period.

Hamilton hit two jumpers to open the fourth quarter, and Ben Wallace rebounded his own missed free throw and banked it in for a 65-60 lead, and a 3 by Billups made it 70-64 with 6:20 left

After the Lakers got within three, Billups hit another 3-pointer to start the game-deciding 7-0 run.

"I told them how proud I was," coach Larry Brown said. "But no matter how you look at it, you've got to win four games in the series."

Notes: For the fourth straight game, O'Neal was called for a jump ball violation on the opening tip. ... Rasheed Wallace got his first technical foul of the series and second of the postseason for jawing at Medvedenko after fouling him in the third quarter. Medvedenko also got a tech on the play. ... Recording artist Kid Rock sang an a cappella rendition of America The Beautiful, and yes, he did remove his hat.

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