- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When Detroit Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince was growing up in Compton, Calif., he watched the Los Angeles Lakers and spent most of his time rooting for his favorite player, Kobe Bryant.

Back then, Prince said, he could never afford to go to games to watch his guys. But now the lanky, 6-foot-9 forward is getting an up-close look at Bryant, who is almost universally acknowledged as the top one-on-one player in the league,

What’s more, Prince’s presence is causing Bryant troubles in the NBA Finals, which the Pistons lead 2-1 entering tomorrow night’s Game 4. And the Pistons’ overall defense has left the Lakers’ quest for a fourth championship in five seasons in trouble.

Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal are the only Lakers who have scored in double figures in any game. Bryant’s brightest moment came in Game 2, when he scored 33 points and hit a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to send the game into overtime, making the Lakers’ victory possible.

But on Thursday night, the Pistons held the Lakers to a franchise playoff-low 68 points while cruising to a 20-point victory. With Prince and Richard Hamilton defending him, Bryant scored just 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting. It was Bryant’s lowest playoff point total in 68 games dating back to his eight-point performance in Game 5 of the 2000 finals against Indiana.

Prince started to gain national renown as a defensive stopper when his block on Indiana’s Reggie Miller at the end of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference finals preserved the Pistons’ 72-67 victory.

Teammate Chauncey Billups wasn’t surprised by the way Prince, the 23rd pick in the 2002 draft, defended Bryant in Game 3.

“He’s a younger player, but he’s very mature for his age,” Billups said. “If you look at this year’s playoffs, he’s had some very tough matchups, and he just keeps stepping up to the challenge. I think his [arm] length and athletic ability bother a lot of people. I think it really bothered Kobe.”

Bryant isn’t the first tough player Pistons coach Larry Brown has asked Prince to take on. In the playoffs, Prince has guarded Milwaukee’s Desmond Mason, New Jersey’s Richard Jefferson and Indiana’s Ron Artest — players with different offensive styles who didn’t enjoy their usual success.

But Prince hasn’t had to do it all by himself. The Pistons concentrate on team defense, and others have been able to help out on Bryant because of the diminished play of other Lakers. Gary Payton has done little, getting outscored by Billups 68-11 through three games. Power forward Karl Malone, hampered by a knee injury, has been a nonfactor with just 18 points.

“Ben [Wallace] and Rasheed [Wallace] are doing a good job talking behind me and letting me know where the help is coming from and stuff like that,” Prince said. “I’ve really been depending on them to get me help, and when he does take outside shots, I just contest them.”

Ultimately Prince must satisfy coach Larry Brown, meticulous architect of the Pistons’ defense. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.

“You can’t guard better than Tayshaun guarded,” Brown said after Game 3. “You can’t.”

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