AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - With composure, togetherness and hard-edged style, something their opponent now lacks, the Detroit Pistons stand one victory from a championship.
Perhaps the most unexpected finish ever to an NBA season lies ahead. The Pistons, given little chance to win, can clinch their first title since 1990 with a win tomorrow at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
They took Game 4 here last night, 88-80, and it served as the latest example of how para-normal the Pistons have become and how shaky the Los Angeles Lakers look.
The improbable is happening.
"I told them how proud I was of them," said Detroit coach Larry Brown, on the brink of his first NBA title after 21 years.
In a game the Lakers had to have, the Pistons remained the more aggressive and determined team. They turned a tight and testy game into more euphoria with a fourth-quarter run. Leading 3-1, they are so close to giving this city a sense of supremacy and restoring some respectability in the Eastern Conference.
Rasheed Wallace scored 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Pistons. Chauncey Billups added 23 points, Richard Hamilton 17 and Ben Wallace had 13 rebounds.
The Lakers got 36 points and 20 rebounds from Shaquille O'Neal, but Kobe Bryant missed 17 of 25 shots. Bryant didn't get a rebound in the game and finished with two assists. To add to the Lakers' problems, forward Karl Malone, bothered by a bad right knee, played only 21 minutes and only could muster two points and five rebounds.
The potential dynasty is crumbling. The Pistons are rumbling.
"You know, people have got to wake up," Billups said before the game, referring to Detroit's and the East's lack of respect. "They have got to wake up, and we're trying to make them do that."
But don't expect Detroit to start dreaming.
"You have to win four games in a series," Brown said. "That's what we talked about."
With chants of "Beat L.A.!" inspiring them, the Pistons turned a three-point lead into double digits with a 10-3 run in the fourth quarter. It culminated with Bryant receiving a technical foul, and Billups hitting a free throw for a 77-67 advantage with 4:52 remaining.
The game was, as expected, intense. O'Neal cursed at Bryant during the second quarter. Rasheed Wallace and Slava Medvedenko traded shoves and shouts during the third.
Lakers fouling - that was the officials' view - junked up much of the game. The referees whistled the Lakers for 35 fouls, and the Pistons shot 41 free throws. The Pistons fouled 20 times, and the Lakers shot 22 free throws.
Los Angeles opened with more desire and better offensive efficiency. Meanwhile, the Pistons struggled through a 32.4 percent shooting half.
Somehow, it all equaled a two-point Detroit lead at halftime. The Lakers are weird that way, the Pistons scrappy that way.
O'Neal scored 10 of Los Angeles' first 16 points, hitting his first six shots, and Gary Payton awoke for the first time this series. O'Neal and Payton combined for 16 of the Lakers' first 20 points, but Payton would get a quick six and disappear until the third quarter.
O'Neal was at its best early. He scored 17 points before halftime and added 12 rebounds.
Midway through the second quarter, O'Neal dropped in a soft little jumper. Amused, he backpedaled downcourt and flaunted. Los Angeles looked in control.
Detroit went on an 8-0 run to take a 41-36 lead, with backup point guard Mike James going coast to coast for consecutive layups to end the spurt. The Lakers called a timeout after James' second basket, and O'Neal's frustration became apparent.
He cursed at Bryant, who was then 2-for-13 from the field, and exclaimed, "Pass!"
After that timeout, Bryant shot again. He made a three-pointer. Twenty-three seconds later, the Lakers walked to their locker room, stoic but still in this game and this series.
Soon, their fortune would change.
NOTE: USA Basketball expects to fill the final two spots of the Olympic roster with the Pistons' Richard Hamilton and the Miami Heat's Lamar Odom, ESPN.com reported. If Hamilton declines, the Web site said, USA Basketball is expected to select the Milwaukee Bucks' Michael Redd over the Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic).
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
NBA Finals(Best of seven; *-if necessary)
L.A. Lakers vs. Detroit
(Detroit leads series 3-1) Game 1-Detroit 87, L.A. Lakers 75 Game 2-L.A. Lakers 99, Detroit 91, OT Game 3-Detroit 88, L.A. Lakers 68 Yesterday-Detroit 88, L.A. Lakers 80 Tomorrow-at Detroit, 9 p.m. *Thursday-at L.A. Lakers, 9 p.m. *Sunday-at L.A. Lakers, 9 p.m.