- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — These Detroit Pistons were supposed to find a dark corner somewhere, anywhere they could run and hide.

After all, they had Game 2 in the palm of their hands before the Los Angeles Lakers blitzed them in regulation and overtime to erase Detroit’s one-game lead in the NBA Finals.

But last night it was the Lakers — Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and anyone else wearing the purple and gold — who bowed at the altar of Motown, suffering a humiliating 88-68 loss at the Palace of Auburn Hills to fall behind 2-1 in the finals.

The next two games are at the Palace, and no home team has won the middle three games of the series since the NBA went to the 2-3-2 format in 1985. But a Pistons win Sunday in Game 4 would put the Lakers in the untenable position of having to win three straight to capture their fourth title in five seasons.

In front of a raucous and adoring crowd of 22,076, the Pistons looked fully recovered from the supposedly traumatizing 99-91 overtime loss on Tuesday, holding the Lakers to their lowest-ever playoffs point total.

And they made it look easy, taking a 20-point lead late in the fourth quarter against a Lakers team that never mounted a challenge and holding their shooters to 27 of 74 from the floor.

“They played excellent defense and we didn’t execute,” Bryant said. “That’s basically it.”

There was Richard Hamilton — you remember him, right? — looking fully recovered from his 12-point performance in Game1 and completely dominating the Lakers, finishing with a game-high 31 points on 11-for-22 shooting. Chauncey Billups added 19 points and Tayshaun Prince 11.

There also was the Pistons’ board-sweeping dominance: They outrebounded the Lakers by 51-39 with Rasheed Wallace (10) and Ben Wallace (11) combining to haul down 21.

It was a rout in every sense of the word and the Pistons did it with their defense. Bryant, who pushed Game2 into overtime with his miracle 3-pointer, missed his first five shots, had seven points after three quarters and finished with 11.

O’Neal, the Diesel, was little more than fossil fuel, his 14 points and eight rebounds virtually meaningless.

Karl Malone, a question mark going into last night’s game after aggravating the knee injury that devoured a huge chunk of his regular season, started the game but was rather useless, hobbling around for 18 minutes and finishing with five points and four rebounds.

The Lakers, who won Game2 on the strength of Bryant’s miracle 3-pointer that forced overtime, had hoped to come out galvanized against the Pistons. But just the opposite was true.

Detroit wasted little time clamping down on the Lakers, who didn’t break into double figures until Devean George’s layup cut what had been an eight-point Pistons lead to 14-11 at the 4:51 mark.

The Lakers scored just two more baskets the rest of the quarter. After they cut Detroit’s lead to 14-13, the Pistons outscored them 10-3 the rest of the way to restore their lead to eight points.

Five straight points to start the second quarter produced the Pistons’ biggest lead of the half at 29-16 following a basket by Corliss Williamson. But the Pistons’ offense, never a thing of beauty, disappeared as they went more than eight minutes without a basket, ending the drought on a Hamilton layup with 1:15 left in the half.

Hamilton’s basket put a stop to what had been a 12-6 Lakers’ run that shrank the Pistons’ one-time 13-point lead to just 33-28, but a basket by Billups and two more free throws by Hamilton helped the Pistons take a 39-32 halftime lead.

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