LOS ANGLES — They arrived like the plumbers called to fix the movie stars’ sink. Barely noticed, anonymous but for their uniforms, they knelt, took out their toolbox, and went to work. And by the time the game was finished, water was all over the place. And the Pistons sloshed out grinning and promising to come back and fix it on Tuesday.
Beatable. Maybe not four times. Maybe not even one more time. But you only can play the game they put in front of you, and the team they put in front of you, and when the buzzer sounded Sunday night, the Pistons had done to the Lakers — on their first try — what many thought they wouldn’t do in four. Knocked them down a game, and maybe down a peg.
No sweeping, La-La fans. It was Pistons 87, Shaquille O’Neal 75. No. Wait. He’s part of a team, right? Well. Maybe they’ll show up for Game 2. On this night, the rest of the Lakers — with the exception of Kobe Bryant, who had 25 points — was as invisible as the key grip and the gaffer.
You can thank the Pistons’ defense for that. Maybe all those stuffy, clanking games against Eastern Conference foes paid a dividend after all. The Pistons came, they saw — and they didn’t break down in terror. Forget the pressure. Forget the reputation of their opponent. Forget the movie stars or the Laker Girls. The Pistons brought their defense with them, as they always do, and they were pleasantly surprised to find some space between them and the men defending them for once.
“Nervous?” Ben Wallace said, after the Pistons’ first game in the NBA Finals since 1990. “Well, I think my first jump shot was a 15-footer that went 13 feet. But we relaxed faster than they did. And after a while it became a regular game.”
A game in which they got points from everyone — including 22 big ones from Chauncey Billups — a game in which they bothered Bryant just enough, shut down Karl Malone, virtually erased Gary Payton, and held the Lakers’ bench to four points.
“A lot of guys came up B-I-G,” Rasheed Wallace said.
And in the final minutes, it was the Pistons who looked at home: Tayshaun Prince canning a three-pointer, Rasheed hitting an easy jumper, Billups hitting a 16-footer. Meanwhile, the Lakers scrambled, wondering where the magic had gone. You knew it was over when O’Neal, the one unstoppable force all night, had the ball in his hands and fumbled it away to Prince. The big man watched with a “What’s going on?” look on his face.
Can you blame him? The Lakers had not lost a playoff game at home all year.
No reason for fear
The day before this game, someone had asked Rasheed Wallace about being intimidated by the situation, most of these Pistons having never been to this level before.
The words were barely spoken before Rasheed jumped all over them.
“Ain’t nobody scared here,” he barked. “Ain’t no punks on this team! Get away from me with that scared (expletive).”
It wasn’t bluster. Oh, sure, there were some moments Sunday night when the Pistons looked a bit tentative. But fewer for them than the Lakers. With the exception of Richard Hamilton — bothered all night by Bryant’s defense — the Pistons’ starters all shot at least 50 percent from the floor. Nobody besides O’Neal did that for the Lakers.
Highlights? How about Prince, after the Lakers had cut the lead to six points, hitting a huge three-pointer with just over four minutes to play? How about Ben Wallace shaking off his air ball to hit a big jumper to give the Pistons a seven-point lead and a tip-in to make it 10? How about Hamilton, thwarted from his usual offensive night, taking a charge for an offensive foul in the final five minutes?
How about Billups, who was frustrated with the Eastern Conference swamp muck defense, playing the way he knows he can, firing shots from all over. I counted at least five shots where nobody was near him. Oh, Lord, how he must love that!
“If someone had told you that Rip Hamilton would be 5-for-16 tonight, what would you have said?” he was asked.
“I would have said we’d be all right,” Billups answered. “We got other guys who can score on this team.”
Something L.A. might have forgotten.
A totally relaxed team
Now, we all knew the national portrait painted before the ball was tipped. It was the drama queen Lakers against the worker bee Pistons. One team was so full of story lines, they were virtually bumping each other off the stage — Kobe’s legal woes, Karl’s last gasp, Phil’s run for the 10th ring — while the other team was a theater group in search of a play. There’s not much to write about when your players get along, when you only wish someone would want the ball to score, and when only your coach is considered a sure Hall of Famer.
Still, if the Pistons were supposed to be nervous, it was not evident on their faces as they entered the arena. Rasheed Wallace came in with his earphones loose, saw the lineup of guests at the media food area and yelled out, “Man, y’all some hungry cats, ain’t you?” Ben Wallace was alongside him, wearing work boots and blue jeans, looking as if he were headed to a construction site, a marked contrast to some of the Lakers, who entered in designer suits. Hamilton came in with a hat and a T-shirt underneath a white jersey that read “Rip City.”
So they looked at home.
And they played it.
And they won.
Atmosphere? The crowd featured a who’s who of glitter, including Jack Nicholson, Chris Rock, Sylvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, Jackie Chan, Meg Ryan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Hoffman. I personally had to step past Snoop Dogg and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson just to get to my seat, not that my seat was anywhere near theirs, of course, but still, how often are you going to pass that much of a swing on the musical spectrum?
And you know what? They all went home unhappy. Their beloved Lakers? Scoring 75 points? Shooting less than 40 percent? Losing?
“I don’t know if we could ever defend better,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said.
For this team, that’s saying something.
No time to ease up
Now, the Pistons need to be very careful here. Truth be told, their best chance at stealing a game in this series was this one. They did it. That is to be commended — and forgotten. The old Bad Boys won their first game against the Lakers in 1988 and still lost the series. Brown’s 76ers did this a few years ago to the Lakers — and lost the next four. Phil Jackson’s crew will come back with everything it has Tuesday night. And remember, the Pistons used five defenders and countless fouls to try to stop O’Neal and he still had 34 points, went 13 of 16, and had 11 rebounds. He gets any kind of help besides just Kobe, Detroit may not win this game.
So the Pistons must be careful not to act as if they’ve done enough in Los Angeles. They should not play as if they came here to win one. They should play as if they have to win them all.
“They wanted it more than we did tonight,” O’Neal said.
“It’s a seven-game series,” Bryant warned.
True enough. Still, Detroit fans should enjoy it for what it’s worth. In the cavernous halls of the Staples Center, it was clear how international the NBA has become. French reporters mingled with Chinese tourists. British cameramen jostled for position. I heard an Italian newspaperman teasing with a countryman and suddenly, in the middle of all his Italian, he screamed “WHASSUP?”
You wonder what such an absorbent world is making of these Pistons, a fairly faceless team when compared to the Lakers. Do they know their names? Do they know their faces?
They know them better this morning. At the start of the game, the Lakers brought out Magic, Kareem and James Worthy for an introduction and a photo. Ben Wallace slid into the frame — maybe he was asked, maybe he just wanted a record of the moment. But there they were, three multichampions, three Hall of Famers, and one Piston in a uniform, the plumber, posing for posterity.
Who knows? One day, that photo may be more congruous than it seems.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”