By Bryan Williams
LOS ANGELES, June 6 -- Shaquille O'Neal may have played his best game in four months, but with an 87-75 victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Pistons will take it.
Not so much guarding Shaq as enabling him, Detroit opted for rotating shifts of man-to-man coverages on O'Neal in the paint, all of which the Diesel summarily abused en route to a 34-point performance on 13-of-16 shooting, his highest total since he scored 37 on Feb. 4 against Cleveland. For Larry Brown and the Pistons, it was all according to plan.
Kobe Bryant didn't have many open looks at the basket in Game 1.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Said the Detroit head coach afterward, "I don't know if we could ever defend better."
In itself, the Lakers' .397 field goal percentage in Game 1 would be a testament to the ongoing success of the Pistons' touted defense, which held both New Jersey and Indiana below 40 percent shooting in the conference semifinals and finals. But subtract Shaq's buoyant statistics, and the remaining Lakers hit just 16-of-57 from the floor for a feeble .281.
Key in the Detroit effort was second-year small forward Tayshaun Prince, who hounded a frustrated Kobe Bryant into off-balance or altered shot attempts. Bryant required 27 attempts to score 25 points, with the majority of his baskets coming when matched up against the smaller Lindsey Hunter or -- for a curious stretch during the fourth quarter -- little-used forward Darvin Ham.
"He's very long," Bryant said of Prince. "He knows how to use his length and it's going to be an interesting challenge."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson was more blunt.
"Kobe had a hard time shooting over Prince," he said. "I thought, individually, that was probably one of the best defensive matchups they had all night."
Observed Prince, "Good thing I have some long arms to make him change his shot a little bit."
After Bryant, the offensive picture became even bleaker still for L.A. Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Devean George, Derek Fisher and Kareem Rush combined for a wretched 14 points on 6-of-30 (.200) from the floor.
Malone, whose meager contribution of four points still ranked fourth on the team, was predictably frustrated after the game.
"Iím very disappointed in me because I didnít help the guys out at all," he said. "Thatís unacceptable as a professional athlete ... four points is terrible. My little boy can do that."
Billups Back on Track
After averaging just 12.7 points on .308 shooting against Indiana, Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups
immediately looked comfortable finding his shot against Payton. Knocking down his first four attempts, Billups finished with a team-high 22 points and showcased his jumper -- often off of screen and rolls where he found himself wide open -- as well as strong drives to the hoop.
"I'm a shooter," he said. "I can score the ball. We get in pick-and-roll situations -- I come off of the pick and nobody is there, I look to shoot that, and more times than not, I'm going to make that shot."
Billups' offensive offering was vital considering the Lakers' strategy of double-teaming primary scorer Richard Hamilton, effectively taking him out of the game. Hamilton was just 5-of-16 with six turnovers on the night.
"Tonight with Rip struggling, I thought Kobe and Kareem and a lot of them did a really good job of trying to take him away from us," said Coach Brown. We needed somebody to step up, and [Billups] really did. He really delivered."
Campbell Keys Bench Play
In contrast to the Lakers' reserves -- whose total offense amounted to one jumper from Fisher and two free thows from Stanislav Medvedenko
-- the Detroit bench was a model of efficiency. With Rasheed Wallace
falling into early foul trouble, Elden Campbell
was on the court for a postseason-high 18 minutes, posting six points, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
Others pitched in as well. Corliss Williamson scored seven points in 11 minutes, and Hunter added five to give the Pistons an 18-4 advantage in bench scoring. Brown, though, was more pleased with the way his reserves kept the defensive intensity high.
"Our bench was great," he said. "Those guys come in and defend ... and gave us an opportunity to keep Rasheed on the bench without him picking up his third [foul]. And Lindsey's defensive presence is so vital because we had to kind of extend our defense a little bit in order to have any chance of stopping them."
Questionable Quote of the Day
"Really, the game boiled down to shots that were made under duress at the end of the 24-second clock."
-- Phil Jackson, on how the Lakers lost by 12