- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers — the NBA’s drama kings — are coming unglued. But even more than the Lakers’ in-fighting and finger-pointing, the play of the Detroit Pistons has them on the brink of elimination.

The Pistons again dictated play much of the way and put away a game that had been tied after three quarters with a decisive late run in the fourth for a 88-80 victory at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

For the Lakers to win their fourth title in five seasons, a title pundits practically handed them before the series began, they are going to have to become the first team to come back after trailing 3-1 in the finals.

“I’ve been in the other locker room,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said. “All I’m going to tell them is we have to continue to play the right way — defending and rebound and sharing the ball. Whatever happens, happens. … There’s no reason to think about what no other team has done. They have a coach who has won nine titles and two players who are in their prime. We can’t take anything for granted.”

The Pistons already would be the champions if not for a miracle shot from Kobe Bryant that sent the Lakers to an overtime victory in Game 2, and right now they are the better, stronger, faster team. As a result, they are wearing the Lakers down, outrebounding them for the third time in four games.

Rasheed Wallace, acquired late in the season as the final answer to the Pistons’ puzzle, paced Detroit last night with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Chauncey Billups, battling Richard Hamilton for the series MVP, finished with 23 points.

“In the first couple games they were double teaming me, so I just passed it to my teammates,” Wallace said. “Tonight was just my night.”

Ben Wallace also pulled down 13 rebounds for the Pistons, who can close out the series tomorrow when they will try to become the first team to win the middle three home games since the finals went to the 2-3-2 format in 1985.

On a night when so much was at stake for the Lakers, only Shaquille O’Neal (36 points, 20 rebounds) had any success against the ravenous Pistons’ defense.

Kobe Bryant finished with 20 points but made just eight of 25 shots from the floor, leaving him 12-for-38 in the last two games. Through the first four games, O’Neal and Bryant are still the only Lakers to have scored in double figures.

The Pistons broke open a 70-67 game with a seven-point spurt that was capped by two free throws by Billups with 4:52 left, essentially putting the game away.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson hinted at lineup changes during the two days in between Games 3 and 4, and the two names mentioned as possibly heading to the bench were the injured Karl Malone and ineffective Gary Payton.

But Jackson, perhaps fearing the already fragile chemistry of his team might get worse, stayed with his regulars.

Malone, however, was visibly limping through most of the night and left the game for good midway through the third quarter.

In his place the Lakers turned to Luke Walton, who played a key role for them in their Game 2 victory. But Walton was overmatched against Wallace and fouled out of the game with 6:03 left and no points.

The Lakers wasted little time at the start getting the ball inside to O’Neal, and early on they had great success.

With O’Neal making all five of his shots — all from close to the basket — the Lakers escaped the first quarter leading 22-21.

Los Angeles made almost 58 percent of its shots in the first quarter compared to Detroit’s 35 percent.

But the Pistons almost didn’t need to score from the floor in the first half because they were making the most of their opportunities at the free throw line. The Pistons got to the line 23 times, converting 17.

That helped to offset the Pistons’ 12-for-37 shooting.

Detroit’s offense became so stagnant in the second quarter that they didn’t register their first basket until Rasheed Wallace’s dunk with 5:52 left gave the Pistons a 33-32 lead.

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