- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When a bad game turned ugly, Richard Hamilton was infuriated enough to make the shot of the night.

In one of the lowest-scoring games in NBA playoff history, Hamilton hit a clutch running jumper from the left baseline shortly after being flagrantly fouled by Ron Artest.

The shot gave the Pistons a late four-point lead, and Detroit went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers 69-65 last night and advance to the NBA Finals.

A thing of beauty Game6 of the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t, even to Pistons fans who booed in the first half but were on their feet by the end.

And it certainly couldn’t have thrown anything resembling a scare into the Los Angeles Lakers, who will play host to Game1 of the finals on Sunday night.

“I don’t know how people around the country viewed the game, but as a coach who respects hard play and effort, I was glad to be a part of this,” said Pistons coach Larry Brown, who will return to the finals for the first time since 2001 when he coached Philadelphia.

This will be the Pistons’ first trip to the finals since 1990 when the team nicknamed “Bad Boys” for their physical style of play won their second consecutive title.

It’s 14 years later, and the Pistons will enter the championship round with a team that plays superb defense. Their offense, however, brings a different connotation to the “Bad Boys” moniker.

The teams combined for just 60 first-half points, breaking the NBA playoff record of 62 set by the Pistons and New Jersey Nets during the second round, and finished with a combined total of 134 — four more than the record-low.

The Pistons won despite shooting a shade under 33 percent from the field.

“To think we could win a game shooting 32 percent blows my mind,” Brown said.

Hamilton scored 21 points, Ben Wallace had 12 points and 16 rebounds, Rasheed Wallace had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Chauncey Billups added 10 points for the Pistons.

When the final buzzer sounded, Ben Wallace twirled his way to center court and joined a spirited celebration that included Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton jumping atop the scorer’s table and saluting the fans.

A chant of “Beat L.A.” rang out as the Pistons were presented with the Eastern Conference championship trophy.

The Lakers were installed as a 7-point favorite for Game1.

“A lot of people don’t expect us to win, but in our minds and in our hearts, we feel like we’re going to win a championship,” Pistons forward Corliss Williamson said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’d love to be able stick our tongue out at people.”

Detroit became the first team to beat the Pacers after trailing entering the fourth quarter. Indiana had been 9-0 this postseason in such situations.

Jermaine O’Neal scored 20 points to lead the Pacers, who were held to 10 points in the second quarter, 17 in the third and 15 in the fourth.

Billups hit a 3-pointer 3 minutes into the fourth quarter to make it 54-54, the first tie since it was 2-2. It was Billups’ first field goal after starting 0-for-8.

With the score 59-59, Artest committed a flagrant foul against Hamilton by striking him in the face with a forearm, apparently in retaliation after Artest was hit below the belt.

“It wasn’t intentional. He just ran into me,” Artest said.

“It certainly had an impact,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.

Hamilton made both foul shots to give Detroit its first lead, and Rasheed Wallace followed with a dunk off a missed shot to make it 63-59.

“A four-point possession the way this game was going, that was almost a quarter’s output,” Brown said.

Hamilton, still upset over Artest’s foul, got called for a technical foul moments later, but Reggie Miller missed the free throw.

“I think he hit me with a cheap shot. It’s all a part of the game. My teammates just told me to keep my mental part of the game. Don’t let him get into my head,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes it takes something like that to set you right.”

After Anthony Johnson missed a fast-break layup, Hamilton came off a screen, caught a pass and dribbled to his left. From about 14 feet away on the left baseline, he hit a running jumper for a 65-61 lead.

“The kid has grown before your very eyes, sometimes you get to see that,” said Pistons president Joe Dumars, who traded Jerry Stackhouse for Hamilton two years ago.

Artest then tried to dunk over Ben Wallace but missed, and Tayshaun Price made a long 2-pointer for a six-point lead.

O’Neal’s basket with 2:42 left was Indiana’s last field goal until 40 seconds remained.

“It was definitely a series we should have won. I believe we were the better team, but saying it and showing it are two different things,” Johnson said.

This series had been marked by great defense by both teams, but that didn’t apply in the wretched first half. Instead, both teams missed all sorts of easy shots, from layups to wide-open midrange jumpers.

Typical was a sequence early in the second quarter as the Pistons missed three layups and tips before Hamilton finally knocked down his first shot of the game, cutting Indiana’s lead to 25-14.

The Pistons were 5-for-31 from the field at one point, drawing boos from the home fans. The Pacers were barely better, going more than 6 minutes in the quarter without a field goal.

The teams had combined for only 51 points before Artest, Rasheed Wallace and Austin Croshere each hit 3-pointers in the final 35 seconds of the half. Indiana continued to hold the lead throughout a third quarter that ended with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Johnson for a 50-46 lead.

Notes — Carlisle made another change to his starting lineup, replacing Croshere with Al Harrington. Carlisle also yanked gimpy point guard Jamaal Tinsley (left leg injuries) just 3 minutes into the game and kept him on the bench the rest of the way. … Chuck Daly, the coach of the Pistons’ two championship teams, sat in the front row and received a loud ovation.

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