Bridging the Gap
When the ball went up to begin the 2003-04 NBA season, the Detroit Pistons seemed to have all of the pieces necessary for a run deep into the playoffs…except support from NBA experts as a legitimate contender. The club had won 50 games in each of the previous two seasons. In addition to core players Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Corliss Williamson, Chucky Atkins, and Mehmet Okur, the team added Elden Campbell, Bob Sura, Darvin Ham, first round draft pick Darko Milicic, and resigned former Piston Lindsey Hunter. President Joe Dumars had assembled a balanced team that could dominate in the paint or the perimeter, play defense and rebound. Sound familiar? It should. This team was created in the image of its leader and his great “Bad Boy” teams of the late 1980’s. In the role of Chuck Daly, Dumars signed Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown as head coach.
Coach Brown was known throughout the basketball world for his focus on defense and rebounding. Though the Pistons previous coach Rick Carlisle had the same focus, Coach Brown brought over 30 years experience to the Pistons bench. Though he had never won a championship on the professional level (he won an NCAA Championship in 1988 with Kansas), many felt that his knowledge, combined with the talent on the roster would take the Pistons to new heights.
The early season did nothing to change those expectations. After an Opening Night loss to the Indiana Pacers and former Pistons head coach Rick Carlisle, the Pistons ran off five consecutive wins, including an impressive win against the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets. After a three game road losing streak, the Pistons won nine of their next eleven games. As 2003 rolled into 2004, the Pistons got hot, matching a club record winning streak of 13 games. Over the next six weeks, the team sandwiched three- and six-game losing streaks around four consecutive wins. As the trade deadline approached, the club needed another player or two to add some consistency. On February 19, President Joe Dumars found the answers.
In a move that still confounds many, Dumars managed to acquire All-Star forward Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta and Mike James from Boston for Bob Sura, Zeljko Rebraca, Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, two draft picks and cash. Dumars had acquired a proven inside player, while clearing $9-10 million in salary cap space. Just one week later, Lindsey Hunter was placed on waivers and resigned by the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was just what the team needed. The team finished the season winning 20 of its final 26 games, while setting two NBA records, five straight games holding teams under 70 points and winning eight straight games by at least 15 points. When the regular season ended, the Pistons had the second best record in the Eastern Conference at 58-24.
First up for the Pistons was the Milwaukee Bucks. After a 26-point victory in Game One, the Bucks bounced back to win Game Two 92-88 and steal the home court advantage. With the Pistons trailing by 10 midway through the second quarter of Game Three, Tayshaun Prince blocked Toni Kukoc’s breakaway dunk attempt. During the next 90 seconds, Prince scored seven consecutive points, helping the Pistons to a 95-85 win. After winning Game Four in Milwaukee, Prince took over The Palace during Game Five, scoring a career playoff-high 24 points, and adding nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals as the Pistons clinched the series. Next in line were the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets. Not only did the Pistons want to avenge the 2003 Eastern Conference Championship sweep at the hands of the Nets, the Nets also broke the Pistons streak of five consecutive games allowing under 70 points. Though the Nets had lost the game by 18 points, they did so laughing and celebrating on the bench.
The Pistons went right to work, holding the Nets to a franchise low19 field goals in a 78-56 Game One victory. The Pistons also turned up the defense in the second half of Game Two, outscoring the Nets 61-34, en route to a 95-80 victory. As the series moved to New Jersey, the roles of the individual teams changed. It was the Nets who supplied the defensive intensity and the offensive effort, winning both Games Three and Four to even the series at two. Game Five at The Palace was an instant classic. With the Pistons trailing by three, Chauncey Billups hit a 40-foot three pointer of the glass to send the game into overtime. By the end of the third, yes, third overtime, all ten starters except Billups had fouled out. The Nets won the thriller 127-120 to take a three games to two lead heading back to New Jersey. Led by bench players Mike James, Lindsey Hunter, and Mehmet Okur, the Pistons went on a 27-11 second quarter run and held on to win Game Six 81-75. This series had now come down to a single game at the Palace. The game, however, would not live up to the hype of the last four. The Pistons began the second half with a 17-4 run and won the game going away, 90-69. Awaiting the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals were Central Division rivals the Indiana Pacers and former Pistons head coach Rick Carlisle.
Right from the opening tip of Game One, everyone knew that this series was going to be a defensive battle. A late Reggie Miller three-pointer helped seal a 78-74 Game One victory for the Pacers. Realizing that his poor Game One shooting performance was one of the culprits in the loss, Rasheed Wallace proclaimed his now famous Game Two guarantee. “They will not win Game Two. I guarantee it. You can write it.” Game Two was moving in the same direction as the previous tilt, a defensive struggle for both clubs. With the Pistons leading 69-67 with under 30 second to play in the game, Reggie Miller came away with a loose ball and streaked for what seemed like an easy lay-up. As Miller elevated, the long left arm of Tayshaun Prince came from seemingly nowhere to make what is now simply known as “The Block,” preserving the Pistons 72-69 Game Two victory. Led by Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton’s 20 points each, the Pistons returned to The Palace to win Game Three. The Pistons followed that with perhaps their worst performance on the playoffs, losing 83-68. The roles reversed as the teams went back to Indianapolis for Game Five. The Pacers had no answer for Richard Hamilton’s 33 points in a 83-65 Pistons win. Game Six was the ultimate in defensive intensity. The Pistons struggled to a 69-65 win to advance to their first NBA Finals since 1990. Their opponents would again be the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unlike the 1989 championship run, this group was heavy underdogs. This Pistons team was made of no-name players who relied on defense, passing, and team play to be successful. They faced a Lakers team that started four future Hall-of-Famers and was led by a 10-time NBA Champion head coach in Phil Jackson. There was no one on the planet, who believed that the Pistons could win this series. That is, except the ones who mattered, the Pistons.
The series began with a 87-75 Pistons win in Los Angeles. They won this game just as they had all season, with contributions from every player on the roster. The Lakers on the other hand got just 16 points from any player not named Kobe or Shaq. The Lakers faced a must-win situation in Game Two. With the 2-3-2 NBA Finals format, they could not afford to go to Detroit facing a 2-0 deficit. Game Two seemed to be in hand with the Pistons leading by three in the finals seconds. Then, with 2.1 seconds on the clock, Kobe Bryant hit a game-tying three pointer to send the game into overtime. The Lakers dominated the extra frame, ultimately winning 99-91. As the series moved to Detroit, the Pistons received an incredible lift from the deafening sound of fans banging 44,000 thundersticks at The Palace. The Pistons dominated the Lakers, winning Game Three 88-68.
As Game Four began, people began to realize that maybe a 13-man team can defeat four guys; perhaps previous championship experience doesn’t mean much. Players and fans could see the Lakers starting to break, each player believing that he, individually, could win the game. The Pistons had exposed the Lakers in winning the game 88-80. The Lakers had no answer for Chauncey Billups. They were fighting both in the media and on the court. A win in Game Five would have given the Pistons not only their third championship in franchise history, but given the fans their first opportunity to witness a championship celebration at The Palace, as both previous rings were clinched on the road. By halftime, everyone knew the celebration was just a matter of time. Leading 55-45 at the break, the Pistons had essentially wrestled the Lakers into submission. When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard said 100-87, but the result was so much bigger.
Chauncey Billups became the first non-All-Star to win NBA Finals MVP since 1989 when Joe Dumars accomplished the feat. The 1990 Bad Boys were the first team to win all three road games in the 2-3-2 format. The 2004 Pistons were the first team to win all three games at home. Larry Brown became the first coach to win both an NCAA and an NBA Championship.
Joe Dumars had created a team in his image, a team that won with defense, rebounding and timely shooting. As players, the Bad Boys seemed to always be trying to prove that toughness, defense, and teamwork was the way to win championships. This team was no different. Each player had his own story of trials and tribulations to get to this point. Dumars had assembled a team of player who wanted to prove that they belonged. Not only did they belong, the believed that they could be champions. These guys played the “Pistons Way” just as the Bad Boys had years earlier.