10 years ago, the ’04 Finals swung Pistons way in Game 3 smashing of Lakers

Father’s Day this Sunday will mark the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 Pistons NBA championship-clinching win over the Lakers, but it was Game 3’s 20-point win that made it clear what was coming.
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The 10-year anniversary of the 2004 NBA championship won by the Pistons comes Sunday. If you’ve got a 10-year-old bottle of bubbly saved for the occasion, Father’s Day sounds like a good day to pop it.

But if it’s looking good to you today, well, today’s not a bad day to uncork it, either.

Because today marks the 10-year anniversary of Game 3, and when it ended – an 88-68 demolition of a Lakers roster dripping with future Hall of Famers – the series was over.

It really didn’t take much of a shove. When the series left Los Angeles, the Lakers were showing glaring signs of a fragility nobody believed possible when the ’04 Finals matchup was set.

The teams split the first two games at Staples Center, the Pistons winning Game 1 87-75 with a dominant defensive second half, limiting the Lakers – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton – to just 34 points. The Pistons were poised to take a 2-0 lead out of Los Angeles when Kobe Bryant hit one of the shots that built his career, a game-tying triple to force overtime.

So the Pistons were the better team for about 100 of the 101 minutes they played in those first two games, but the 1-1 tie the Lakers took to The Palace – and the euphoric way the Lakers managed that tie – at least gave the perception that there was some suspense left to the ’04 Finals.

But … not much.

I hung around Los Angeles for Lakers practice the day after Game 2 just to get a sense of which way the wind was blowing. It was a strange mood at their El Segundo practice facility that day. Phil Jackson almost seemed to be distancing himself from the product he was putting out there. Shaq was grumpy. Kobe was terse. Payton and Malone seemed wrung out.

On the red-eye back to Detroit that night for Game 3, I couldn’t help but think the Lakers had almost no margin for error. They were going to come out smoking in Game 3, maybe, like a heavyweight who knew he had one round to get the kill shot launched, and if that didn’t work they could start changing the street signs to Four Championship Drive off of Lapeer Road in Auburn Hills.

The Lakers played that night like a bunch of strangers, as Larry Brown might say. O’Neal led them in scoring – with 14 points. Bryant was held to 13 shot attempts in 45 minutes, made four and scored 11. The Lakers bench was exposed for the weak link it was, a fatal blow when Payton and Malone were on their last legs and Devean George was the fifth starter.

The Pistons held the Lakers to under 20 points in all four quarters and just ground them down into powder. The series was five days old and it was remarkable how the perception of the two participants had turned 180 degrees in that time.

When the Pistons flew west to open the Finals, the prevailing wisdom was that they were a young team with better days ahead but simply weren’t ready to knock off the Lakers. For as much of a gap as there appears to be between West and East today, back then it was even more pronounced, especially at the top of each conference. West teams had taken five straight NBA titles and the East’s winners had won only six Finals games in that span.

It wasn’t a question of who would win the 2004 Finals, but how many games it would take the Lakers to spank the baby Pistons.

I’m not sure if the Pistons went into the Finals believing they were the better team, but it was clear that they believed it fully after the first two games. That overtime loss might have broken their spirit or made them question their title readiness. Instead, it emboldened them. They properly considered it a fluke that they weren’t ahead 2-0 and came to The Palace determined to avoid a return flight west. In fact, that’s what Chauncey Billups said to the team on the bus ride to the airport. They weren’t coming back to LA.

The Finals turned out to be as one-sided in the other direction as it was anticipated to be for the Lakers. Later this week, I’ll look at what forged that Pistons team in the moments leading to the Finals.