Pistons trying to buck long-standing trend

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 12, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Go ahead, try to remember an NBA champion that didn't have a Hall of Famer. Anyone younger than 40 will have a hard time with the answer.

The Detroit Pistons are not only trying to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, they're attempting to undo a major trend.

For the past quarter-century, only teams with top-echelon superstars - Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving - have won championships.

Email newsletter signup

Not since the Seattle SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets in 1979 has a team bucked that trend.

''The similarities are certainly there,'' said Cleveland coach Paul Silas, winner of a title with the '78-79 SuperSonics, who did have a Hall of Fame coach - Lenny Wilkens. ''They have a chance to be the one team to win without that dominant player.''

The finals resume with Game 4 on Sunday night and the Pistons ahead 2-1 in what so far has been one of the most surprising championship series. No one on the Lakers seems too upset yet, with the exception of part-owner and vice president Magic Johnson.

''The Lakers had a mind-set that was disrespectful to the Pistons. They thought it was going to be easy,'' Johnson said Saturday. ''Unless they come out and play very hard, with the same level of intensity as the Pistons, this series will be over.''

Detroit has just one All-Star, Ben Wallace, who reached that plateau through a combination of defense, rebounding and the good fortune of representing a conference without many great centers. He certainly didn't make it for his offense.

Compare that to the Lakers, who have combined 40 All-Star appearances among Karl Malone (14), O'Neal (11), Gary Payton (nine) and Bryant (six), along with a coach, Phil Jackson, with a record-tying nine NBA titles.

Maybe it will all boil down to hunger.

''I don't know if there's anybody in the world that wants it any more than I do,'' Detroit coach Larry Brown said.

Maybe a Detroit team that has never doubted itself and has not been in awe of the Lakers will bring the title back to the East for the first time since 1998.

''We don't have any one person that strays too far from the pack,'' Ben Wallace said.

It's astonishing, actually, to scroll through NBA history and see just how rare major upsets have been in the championship round.

Detroit, which entered as a 7-1 underdog, has a chance to become the first team since the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors (who swept Washington 4-0) to defeat a heavy favorite.

''That's pretty unique, and that's why I'm trying to tell our guys it's 2-1 and it's far from over,'' Brown said. ''That's the challenge.''

The Lakers arrived for practice at The Palace carrying their usual air of defiance.

O'Neal did not speak publicly, while Bryant gave a few uninsightful snippets before plopping himself down in the stands 17 rows up to lonesomely watch his teammates conduct interviews before practice.

Jackson said he is contemplating a switch in the starting lineup, replacing Malone - whose sprained knee was feeling no better or worse - with fourth-year forward Slava Medvedenko.

''I've told this team that we have to go back with a victory from these three games in Detroit. That's all we came to do is go back with a victory and bring it back to L.A.,'' Jackson said.

Brown, meanwhile, will try to get his team to avoid the kind of letdown it had when holding 2-1 leads against Indiana in the conference finals and New Jersey in the conference semifinals. He might have to convince his players that they have yet to accomplish anything that will leave a mark on NBA history.

But the fact that the Pistons are halfway to a title is pretty remarkable by itself.

During Jackson's nine championship runs, his teams have never trailed 2-1 in the finals. The last team to lose the finals after holding a 2-1 lead was the 1984 Lakers against Boston.

Johnson, a member of that Los Angeles team, ripped the current Lakers during an appearance at Michigan State.

''I am angry. You have to compete. And we're not competing,'' Johnson said. ''You can just see the Lakers' frustration. No one is welcoming anyone to the bench. Guys are sitting there, wandering off into the crowd, defeated.''

''We've got to get that look off our faces and play basketball the way it's supposed to be played,'' he added. ''If not, the series won't get back to Los Angeles.''

Silas, in a telephone interview, said one of the keys for the Pistons was their lack of fear.

''They move the ball, they defend, all the things you need to do well. Just about everything we had, they have,'' Silas said.

''They have Rip Hamilton (averaging 23.0 points), we had Gus Johnson (averaged a team-high 19.2). Jack Sikma (15.6 points) was a lot like Rasheed Wallace (averaged 16.0 points in the regular season). Lonnie Shelton was a rebounder like Ben Wallace. They've found a way to play that's successful for them, so I certainly give them a chance. But Lakers still are the Lakers.''