LOS ANGELES - Perhaps it's not going to be that easy for the Los Angeles Lakers. Hey, it looks like we've got an NBA Finals here.
"I don't look at us as underdogs," Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown said after his team outplayed the Lakers last night in a going-away 87-75 victory. "Our players look at themselves as pretty special in their own right."
The Pistons were special and very good in surprising everyone but themselves in taking a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals thanks to a defense that befuddled and bewildered the Lakers. Pretty much everyone but Shaquille O'Neal, who had 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting and 11 rebounds.
Kobe Bryant was just 10-for-27 shooting for 25 points. No other Laker scored more than five points.
"We, as a team, really did not come out with much energy," O'Neal said. "It puts a lot of pressure on us for the next game. This is the type of team that comes out, plays aggressive defense. They just wanted it a little bit more than we wanted it."
And the Pistons got it with a strategy that effectively challenged O'Neal to beat them, rarely double-teaming him. They had the spidery arms of Tayshaun Prince bothering Bryant, the tank-like body of Chauncey Billups running off Gary Payton and the long arms of Rasheed Wallace and the activity of Ben Wallace chasing Karl Malone into quick, off-the-mark shots.
Malone finished with his playoff career low of four points ("Four points is terrible - my little boy can do that," the veteran forward said), and Payton's three points were one more than his career playoff low.
"To hold them to 75 points," Brown said, "is a pretty incredible defensive performance. I don't know how we could defend any better."
But it was more than defense for the Pistons, who were led by Chauncey Billups' 22 points.
Though mocked for their offensive inability after the drudgery of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Pistons were the livelier team. They attacked the basket and the Lakers, getting to the free-throw line 30 times to 18 for the Lakers. They shot 46.2 percent. Other than O'Neal, the Lakers were 16-for-57 (28 percent). The Pistons held the stolid Lakers to four fast-break points. The Pistons' bench outscored the Lakers' 19-4.
"We played Shaq and Kobe honest," Rasheed Wallace said. "They got their numbers, but we didn't let the role players come out and just line up shots from the outside. We played everybody with a hand in their face."
It's not particularly artistic, but it has put Detroit into position to shock the basketball world, or at least the Lakers' jewelers.
"It's a big challenge," Bryant said. "But I think we're up to it."
The Lakers have been in this position before, losing at home in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals to Brown's Philadelphia 76ers. But that was the best of this era's Lakers' teams, the one that ended up with a record 15-1 in the playoffs. This Lakers team is older and built, it seems, for one first and last run.
"We've been able to rely on throwing the ball to Shaq and teams coming down to double and he's been able to kick it out and get other guys involved," Bryant said. "This year we have to go deeper into our offense. We have to utilize the triangle."
Which, by the way, Payton and Malone have eschewed much of the season.
The Pistons controlled much of the game, leading 22-19 after one quarter before falling behind 41-40 at halftime.
They took the game away from the Lakers in the third quarter behind Billups' nine points and 50 percent shooting as the Lakers again were passive on the screen-and-roll. Detroit scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter to take a 13-point lead and then held off the poor-shooting Lakers with Pistons in their faces the rest of the game.
"We knew we could play with these guys," Prince said.
Now everyone else does.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.