Pistons one win away from title

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 14, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Early in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Rasheed Wallace displayed his usual symphony of emotions - flinging his headband deep into the stands, drawing a technical foul for a shoving match, shouting expletives in every direction.

But in the final minutes, one of the NBA's most volatile players had the cool of a champion. While the Detroit forward made shot after shot, his eyes and arms and mouth never once betrayed him.

Perhaps Wallace is growing up along with the Pistons. With one more win, he'll have a shiny new ring to go with his new outlook.

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Wallace had playoff highs of 26 points and 13 rebounds, leading the Pistons to an 88-80 victory and a 3-1 series lead over the squabbling, scuffling Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night.

''It was just my night,'' Wallace said. ''My shot was falling a little bit, so hey, I've got to take that.''

Chauncey Billups scored 23 points for the Pistons, who are one win away from a shocking title that will level the NBA's tilt to the left. The Western Conference powers have dominated the finals and public opinion for a half-decade, but Detroit's choking defense and cohesive offense is too much for the best of the West.

Game 5 is Tuesday night, when the Pistons could clinch their first title in 14 years with their third straight victory.

''I've never been here, so I don't really know what it tastes like,'' said center Ben Wallace, who had eight points and 13 rebounds. ''I've got my imagination going, though. … We just need to find a way to win one more game, and we can all realize our childhood dreams.''

After Detroit's superb performance so far in the finals, it's difficult to remember this series was thought to be a mismatch in Los Angeles' favor. The Pistons struggled offensively in every previous playoff series, and they seemed to match up poorly with the Lakers and their surging superstar duo.

Shaquille O'Neal was outstanding in Game 4, scoring 13 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter while grabbing 20 rebounds. Kobe Bryant shot poorly before coming on late, scoring eight of his 20 points in the fourth.

But O'Neal and Bryant were no match for Detroit's depth - and Rasheed Wallace had the best game of his first postseason with the Pistons, who acquired him in March for just such an energy boost.

''Rasheed showed why he's regarded so highly as a great player,'' said Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, who dealt two No. 1 picks for Wallace. ''He was the difference in the game.''

Wallace was overdue for some sort of explosion, either from his temper or his fluid inside-out game. He had just 28 points in the first three games, battling constant early foul trouble - but he traded big shots with Billups in the fourth quarter as the Pistons calmly maintained their lead.

The teams entered the fourth quarter tied 56-56, with the Lakers clinging to the hope from O'Neal's inspired low-post play. Wallace got an alley-oop dunk on a pass from Billups, and he hit the first of three fourth-quarter jumpers moments later as Detroit made its decisive move.

Wallace also got the Pistons' final two field goals of the night - a smooth turnaround and an open mid-range shot. When he left the floor with 9.2 seconds left, his teammates greeted him enthusiastically, but he slapped a few high-fives and calmly got a drink of water as time ran out.

''That's 'Sheed,'' Ben Wallace said. ''That was inevitable.''

Though no team has rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals, coach Phil Jackson hopes to convince his team that a victory in Game 5 would swing the momentum back to the Lakers heading home. But after being outplayed for all but a few minutes of the first four games, it might be the hardest sell of Jackson's career.

''We as a coaching staff have never been in this position in the playoffs,'' he said. ''But our message to this team has been we came here to win a game and bring this series back to L.A., and that's all we're here for.''

Aside from O'Neal's smooth touch in the post, the Lakers played with the frantic anxiety of a favorite on the way to a long offseason: missing open shots, getting lost on defense and committing 35 fouls. Jackson got an early technical foul, and Bryant another with 4:52 left.

''We know we can play with this team,'' O'Neal said. ''We haven't played well yet. We haven't showed it yet. I've been with these guys a long time, and they're not just going to lay down. We're going to come out in Game 5 and give it all we've got.

''The pressure is on them. They have to close us out.''

Notes: Detroit shot 41 free throws to Los Angeles' 22, extending their series advantage to 132-78. … Bryant is 22-for-65 in the Lakers' three losses - and 14-of-27 in their only win. … O'Neal is the first player to get more than 30 points and 20 rebounds against Detroit in the playoffs since Bob Pettit did it for St. Louis on March 24, 1963. … Lindsey Hunter, the only member of the Pistons with a championship on his resume, ran off the court with a finger in the air, yelling: ''One more! One more!''