- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Looks like all those predictions of a Los Angeles Lakers sweep were a bunch of gibberish.

The Lakers, virtually handed their fourth championship in five years before the NBA Finals even began, instead find themselves trailing the Detroit Pistons. Los Angeles couldn’t figure out Detroit’s defense in Game1, losing homecourt advantage with an 87-75 defeat at Staples Center last night.

The Pistons took over the game in the third quarter and won despite getting just 12 points from leading scorer Richard Hamilton.

The Lakers were so out of synch that Kobe Bryant (25 points on 10-for-27 shooting) led the team with four assists, a total matched by, of all people, Detroit center Elden Campbell.

Detroit reached the finals by stifling Indiana, the team with the NBA’s best record, in the Eastern Conference finals. Last night, the Lakers didn’t fare much better than the Pacers, connecting on just 39.7 of their attempts (29 of 73). That number was bolstered by Shaquille O’Neal, who scored a game-high 34 and converted 13 of 16 shots from the field; the rest of the Lakers were a combined 16-for-57 (28 percent).

“As a team we didn’t come out with much energy,” O’Neal said. “We had a couple of lapses in the third quarter. I don’t think a guy going 13 of 16 is a sign of a guy getting tired. We have to get everybody involved, and we’ll be OK in Game 2.”

The loss marks the first time the Lakers have trailed in the finals since they fell behind Philadelphia 0-1 in 2001, the second in their run of three consecutive championships. The Lakers responded by winning the next four games to earn the title.

Chauncey Billups led the Pistons with 22 points. The Pistons made 21 of 30 free throws, while the Lakers connected on 14 of 18.

“I don’t know if we can play any better,” Detroit coach Larry Brown said. “Really, I don’t know if we can.”

The last time the Lakers played before their usually uninvolved crowd was Game6 of the Western Conference finals, a victory that sealed the series against Minnesota, one week ago today. In that game, their fans booed what they perceived as shoddy officiating.

Last night against the blue-collar Pistons, the 18,997 fans were booing the Lakers with more than 10 minutes to go after reserve guard Lindsey Hunter gave Detroit a 71-58 lead on his 3-pointer.

While Detroit center Rasheed Wallace, who has drawn the not-so-pleasant defensive assignment of guarding O’Neal, picked up two fouls in the first quarter, Detroit had little trouble dictating the pace early on.

Detroit played out of character in the first quarter. Behind eight points from Billups, they built a five-point lead and made 50 percent of their shots.

The Lakers made just eight of 21 shots to start the game, and had it not been for O’Neal’s 11 first-quarter points, they might have had a far more significant deficit.

O’Neal continued his stellar play before halftime. O’Neal, who along with Michael Jordan is one of only two players to win three consecutive finals MVPs — was a one-man show, scoring 20 of the Lakers’ 41 points before halftime.

The Lakers buckled down defensively in the second quarter, limiting the Pistons to just five of 14 from the floor. Hamilton, the former Wizard, was scoreless in the quarter.

In fact, most of the Pistons’ 18 points in the quarter were supplied by reserve forward Corliss Williamson.

With Hamilton struggling, the Pistons turned to Billups for offense, and the Pistons’ second-leading scorer in the playoffs didn’t disappoint.

Whether it was against Gary Payton or backup point guard Derrick Fisher, things mostly went Billups’ way offensively. He scored nine points in the third quarter, including his third 3-pointer, as the Pistons used a 16-7 run at the start of the half to push their lead to 56-48 following Tayshaun Prince’s 20-foot bank shot with 7:45 left in the third.

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