Their one guard was supposed to outshine the entire Pistons backcourt. Heck, after Kobe Bryant’s miracle shot in Game 2, he threatened to outshine the entire Pistons roster. It was Kobe this and Kobe that. Kobe’s destiny. Kobe’s greatness. That kind of stuff can give you an upset stomach — especially if you’re the other guards. You know, the ones who play against him?
Little wonder then that there were a few extra fist shakes and head nods from Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton as they banged down one three-pointer after another Thursday night, as they laid up a fast break here, a banker off the glass there. Oh, it might not have been a last-second desperation heave with the whole world anticipating it. But you know what? It counts the same. Points are points. Two guards are better than one. And on this night, Billups and Hamilton were twin klieg lights at a shopping mall opening, and Kobe was a 25-watt bulb.
Two gets you Two. The Pistons are halfway to an NBA championship, up two games to one, on a Finals night in which the glow clearly carried a Midwestern hue, from Eminem and Anita Baker to the smallest guys on the Pistons’ roster, the ones doing all the damage.
“Our guards were phenomenal,” Larry Brown said after the 88-68 blowout.
And he was almost understating it.
This was a game in which Bryant, who had THE basket Tuesday night, didn’t have any baskets the entire first half. None? Meanwhile, Hamilton and Billups were as constant as a jackhammer when you’re trying to sleep.
Here was Billups inside and outside, launching a three for an 11-point lead, driving the lane past Karl Malone, a reverse lay-up plus a foul — a 13-point lead — and then, behind a huge screen from Ben Wallace, another three-pointer.
Here was Hamilton, also inside and outside, spotting up for jumpers, fighting inside for a loose ball-turned-lay-up, taking a lob feed from Chauncey and finishing a fast break that brought the full house at the Palace to its collective feet.
And when it wasn’t those two starters, there was backup Lindsey Hunter, playing equally well. He yanked rebounds away from bigger men, stripped Derek Fisher as he was going up for a shot, led several fast breaks, including one in which he dished outside to an open Hamilton, who lined up a three-pointer that brought the house down.
It was rarely close. It was rarely in doubt.
Let’s see. The Pistons have now handled the Lakers in a Game 1, stared them eye-to-eye in Game 2 and blown them out in Game 3.
Who was the favorite in this thing again?
“How surprised are you at how much you dominated?” someone asked Brown.
“I’m shocked,” he said.
He shouldn’t be.
Something to prove
See, there is a point to be taken from this backcourt performance Thursday night, which yielded 31 points from Hamilton, 19 points from Billups, five rebounds and two assists from Hunter, and not a single missed free throw from any of them in 14 tries.
Here’s the point: Two might neutralize one. Three might outshine two. Five teammates might outperform two superstars. And a full team might collectively achieve what a slapped together roster of big names cannot.
Oh. And one other thing that nobody talks about. Pride. Remember that Kobe, with three rings already, was always a golden child. He has been with the Lakers basically since his birth in the NBA, and L.A. fans sweat bullets that he might be gone after this season.
Not so with Hamilton and Billups. Here you have two guys who were given up on by different teams. Washington saw a better future with an aging Jerry Stackhouse than with the young Hamilton. See ya, Rip. And Billups? Well, you can’t count how many teams told him good-bye.
Unlike Bryant, these guys are not here for a coronation. They’re here, first and foremost, for validation.
They sure earned some Thursday night. Hamilton seemed to be everywhere off the backboard. And Billups played with a growing confidence that, since the Lakers don’t really have an answer for him, maybe he really can do almost anything he throws himself into.
“What happened,” someone asked Bryant after he scored 11 points and made only four of 13 shots. “They played excellent defense and we didn’t execute,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Uh, not exactly. You forgot to mention the other guys. Billups? Hamilton? You know? The ones with the 50 points between them?
Two gets you Two.
Expectations of victory
Now. We do need to mention the atmosphere on this night. “Basketball fans from around the great state of Meeeechigan . . .” the PA announcer began, and it felt, at that moment, as if the whole state were indeed in the building. All games count the same in the NBA Finals — on the scoreboard — but the first one in the home building has a certain glow. The halls were a phalanx of wires, crates, computers, TV monitors and dollies. And the stands?
Well, we might not be home to Jack or Denzel, but we’ve got our bright lights. Eminem. Barry Sanders. The Yoopers — Izzo and Mariucci. Several of the old Bad Boys — Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Vinnie Johnson — tossed up a ceremonial first tip. Baker sang the national anthem. And the Pistons picked up the beat from there. They thumped all night. They held the Lakers to 37 percent shooting, seven offensive rebounds and four straight quarters of sub-20-point performances.
And in the end, it was hard to tell which left a bigger impression, the Pistons clicking or the Lakers collapsing. Game 2 — the Kobe miracle — was supposed to leave a lasting sting, right? It seemed pretty far in the rear view Thursday night. Tayshaun Prince threw an umbrella over Kobe’s pogo stick. And that was that.
Here’s all you need to know. Darko got in the game, OK? With more than a minute left. And these are the Finals.
My, oh my, things have changed. People are now expecting the Pistons to win, aren’t they? In four days, this town went from “thrilled to be here” to “we’re gonna be competitive” to “we could push it to six games” to “why shouldn’t they beat the Lakers” to “they’re gonna beat the Lakers” to “they better beat the Lakers.”
That’s a lot of squares on the board. How did we jump them so fast? Well. For one thing, we let the boxers in the ring. Once we sized them up, the big bad guy didn’t look so big and bad, and the young, nervous guy didn’t look so young and nervous. In fact, he looked young and fast and strong. That’ll make you think.
We also got a chance to see the actual matchups, to see that Billups gets an easier draw in this round than he got the last two, that Prince really can check Bryant. We saw that Shaq requires attention, but not five guys’ worth. We saw an L.A. bench that, apart from periodic bursts, is not a consistent force night in night out.
In short, the East got to see the West for more than just a passing night. And while it was impressed, it didn’t faint. You look at the numbers, you do the math, and you have to come up with the same conclusion. Two might be better than one. Five might be better than two. Team might be better than Hall of Famers.
And for one night, anyhow, the other guards were far better than Kobe. Give them every bit the credit he got the other night. In fact, make that a triple, because there are, after all, three of them, a fact the Lakers are having a hard time forgetting.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”