AUBURN HILLS, Mich., June 1 (Ticker) -- Who was that masked man? Why, it was Richard Hamilton, leading the Detroit Pistons into the NBA Finals.

Hamilton scored 21 points, including a clutch jumper with 1:13 to play, as the Pistons advanced to the Finals for the first time in 14 years with a grueling 69-65 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

In a plodding series dominated by defense, the Pistons eliminated the Pacers in six games and will face the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers for the championship beginning Sunday.

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Rip Hamilton's gutsy play helped Detroit advance to NBA Finals 2004.
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"It's crazy. It still hasn't sunk in yet," Hamilton said. "It's unbelievable ... being able to play for a world title is crazy."

Detroit is there for the first time since 1990 thanks to Hamilton, who wears a clear plastic mask to protect a broken nose suffered earlier this season. He ran Indiana ragged with his ability to make mid-range shots off the dribble and on the move.

In a series where points were at a premium, Hamilton averaged 23.7, scoring at least 20 in every game. And in the end, he got the better of Ron Artest, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

With the score tied, 59-59, and less than four minutes to play, Hamilton was battling Artest for position and took a right forearm to the face that drew blood - and a flagrant foul on Artest.

"I'm happy I got hit," Hamilton said. "Sometimes it takes getting hit like that to get you right, ready and focused."

"What happens, happens," Artest said. "He threw an elbow, I threw an elbow, it was over. It wasn't really retaliation, I was just putting my hands up, just to sort of keep him from going where he wanted to go."

Hamilton made two free throws, giving the Pistons the lead for good. On the ensuing possession, Rasheed Wallace had a follow dunk for a 63-59 lead with 3:45 left.

"If you're going to have to give a four-point possession the way this game was going, that was almost a quarter's output," Pistons coach Larry Brown said.

A layup by Jermaine O'Neal, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds despite a sprained knee, halved the deficit with 2:42 remaining. But O'Neal and Anthony Johnson missed shots that could have tied it, and Hamilton got free from Artest again and sank a 12-footer on the left baseline.

"We knew if it was a close game our chances were great," Hamilton said. "When it got down the stretch, we were just saying one more D, one more defense. We knew we were going to score, but if we kept stopping them, we'll be in good shape."

Artest missed a driving dunk, and Tayshaun Prince sealed it with a jumper with 46 seconds to play. When the buzzer sounded, Wallace and Hamilton climbed onto the scorers' table and led the celebration of the 22,076 fans inside The Palace.

Ben Wallace had 12 points and 16 rebounds and Rasheed Wallace added 11 and 11 for the Pistons, who overcame a 14-point first-half deficit.

"I feel real fortunate," said Brown, who joined Phil Jackson of the Lakers as the only active coaches to reach the Finals with different teams. "We beat a really good team that's well-coached. I don't know if it was a classic in a lot of people's eyes, but I guess if the series was going to end, this is the kind of game it should have ended with."

Austin Croshere scored 12 points off the bench and Artest added 11 and 10 boards for the Pacers, who could not overcome a pair of home losses and injuries to O'Neal and guard Jamaal Tinsley, who played just four three minutes due to a torn hamstring.

"The obstacles were just too high for us," O'Neal said. "I'm not sure how much longer I could have played on my leg. It was pretty hard tonight. It hurt from the start (of the game)."

"This is just not our time," said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who lost in last year's conference finals with the Pistons. "That's as simple as I can put it."

The teams combined for the lowest-scoring playoff first half in 50 years since the advent of the shot clock, managing just 60. Their total was just four points more than the lowest-scoring postseason game, a Detroit-Boston affair two years ago.

The Pistons pecked away at the deficit in the third quarter, pulling within a point before Anthony Johnson sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 50-46 lead. A pair of 3-pointers by Chauncey Billups- his only baskets of the game - forged ties at 54-54 and 57-57.

"Can't miss 'em all," said Billups, who was 2-of-13 from the field.

With Al Harrington in the starting lineup and Johnson replacing the ailing Tinsley, the Pacers showed the Pistons they came to play. A dunk by Croshere opened a 23-9 lead early in the opening period, but Indiana managed just one basket over the next seven minutes.

"We were defending well, but we had trouble putting the ball in the basket and we couldn't finish off defensive possessions with rebounds," Carlisle said. "We gave them too many second chances (15)."

Detroit could not find the range, either, as the teams combined for a scoreless stretch of nearly four minutes early in the second quarter. The Pistons finally got untracked and closed to 30-27 before three 3-pointers in the final 35 seconds - an explosion for these teams - left the Pacers with a 33-27 lead.

"It turned into an ugly game," Ben Wallace said. "We missed a lot of good shots. I think I missed four or five layups in a row. But we figured that if we kept getting good looks, they would start falling."