So apparently, it wasn't just bad offense that doomed the Bucks, the Nets and the Pacers. Apparently, the Pistons' defense isn't just hype. Detroit took the Los Angeles Lakers' offense with its four likely Hall of Famers and dismantled it in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And it wasn't just a physical superiority the Pistons exhibited. Coach Larry Brown decided that while the Lakers may have the two best players on the court, in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, those two alone couldn't beat his team.
While Shaq made 13 of 16 shots and scored a game-high 34 points, Kobe needed 27 shots to score his 25 points and no other Lakers player scored more than five points. That's right, the Pistons' defense pitched a virtual shutout against the rest of the Lakers. Karl Malone and Gary Payton, in the celebrated quest for their first NBA title, went 3 for 13 with no free throws. Both were on the bench in the fourth quarter. Other than Shaq and Kobe, the rest of the Lakers made 6 of 30 shots. They were downright feeble, the Lakers' offense, and Brown's strategy of holding everybody else down was pure genius.
Asked if he was surprised by the defensive superiority, Brown said, "Yeah. To hold them to 75 points, I think is a pretty incredible defensive performance. I don't know if we could ever defend better. We did an unbelievable job. I think that's what it's going to take."
So, on a night when Rasheed Wallace played just 29 minutes because of foul trouble and when leading scorer Richard Hamilton missed 11 of 16 shots and scored just 12 points, the Pistons boldly walked into Staples Center and took Game 1. They made it look easy.
"I don't want them feeling our oats because we came in here and won the first game," Brown said.
But how could they not? Brown already sounded the caution tone, reminding everybody who would listen that his 76ers won Game 1 here three years ago but lost the series, 4-1. But the 76ers didn't play this impressively in any game that series.
The folks picking the Lakers to simply run over the Pistons are doing so by and large because they believe Detroit will be totally and completely overwhelmed by Shaq. And that's not without some foundation. Rasheed Wallace may be 6 feet 11, but he's slight. Shaq only outweighs him by 130 pounds. And while Ben Wallace is a rebounding machine, at 6-9 he is closer in build to Dennis Rodman than he is to Shaq. Beyond that, Detroit is countering Shaq with Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur. Oh, let's not forget 6-7 Corliss Williamson. There's nobody in that rotation that's going to slow down Shaq.
Not only that, but Shaq has played the best basketball of his life, unarguably, in the NBA Finals. After being nullified by Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995, Shaq in 2000 averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds per game in a six-game Lakers victory over the Indiana Pacers and he had three 40-point games in that series. In 2001 he didn't score as much in the Lakers' victory over Philly (33 points per game), but he grabbed 16 rebounds a game. And in 2002, as a pretty strong encore, Shaq averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds and appeared to barely exert himself in the Lakers' sweep of the New Jersey Nets.
For all of this talk about who's team it is, Kobe's or Shaq's, the fact is that in the most important games, it's O'Neal who's the best player on the court. He has scored 25 points or more in 20 straight NBA Finals games, something only Michael Jordan has done. And the big man picked up where he left off two years ago in Sunday's Game 1 vs. the Pistons. While Malone was missing all five of his shots in the first half, while Payton was missing all three of his, while Bryant was hot and cold (5 for 12), Shaq was unguardable. He hit six of his eight shots before halftime, and more importantly hit eight of his 12 free throws and had 20 points.
Brown tried all his big men on Shaq and Shaq wore out each one of them. Rasheed Wallace, trying to guard him, picked up two early fouls and had to sit on the bench the rest of the half. In fact, the amazing thing about Game 1 was Detroit's ability to prevail despite getting so little from its two best players in building the lead.
When Lindsey Hunter fired in a three-pointer two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Pistons found themselves ahead 71-58, with only 19 minutes of playing time for Rasheed Wallace and 3-for-11 shooting from Hamilton. In fact, Hamilton had a dreadful game; he could barely hold the ball and times, and misfired balls of the rim. One would assume he was simply pressing in his first NBA Finals game. In the fourth quarter Hamilton wasn't even taking the shots he usually takes from 12 to 15 feet. And when he did take a big shot, it was an air ball. Players don't ascend to "elite" status by declaration; it has to be done in pursuit of a championship. Hamilton may indeed assert himself in the very next game. But in Game 1, he was reduced to being a hard-working facilitator.
Even so, the Pistons had smothered the Lakers just as they had the Pacers, and the Nets in the series before that. Payton was on the bench with five fouls. Hamilton drew Kareem Rush's fourth foul. And while Shaq was scoring at will, he couldn't beat the Pistons by himself.