A New Way to Win

Demonstrating how to beat a high-priced, high-maintenance glamour team, Detroit's band of castoffs pulled together to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals
Demonstrating how to beat a high-priced, high-maintenance glamour team, Detroit's band of castoffs pulled together to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals
June 20, 2004

An hour before

Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at The Palace of
Auburn Hills, power forward Rasheed Wallace walked briskly
through the Detroit Pistons' locker room, discouraging
conversation by rapping loudly to a song that pounded through his
headphones. One line he bellowed sounded something like, I hate
y'all now, which was either a lyric or an espousal of his world
view.

But after an 88-80 victory that gave Detroit a shocking 3-1
series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers, Wallace, who had 26
points and 13 rebounds, emerged from a postgame shower with a
towel wrapped around his midsection and a green toothbrush stuck
in his mouth. He arm-bumped Bob Ritchie, a.k.a. Kid Rock, who
was turning the locker room toxic with a stogie, and high-fived
his way past a group of Pistons progeny screaming, "Sheed!" He
may have even smiled.

This is Wallace's world these days. He can still be angry and
discourteous at times. And he still gets too overheated on the
court, as he did on Sunday in the fourth quarter when he whipped
off his white headband and tossed it into the seats, a gesture
ignored by the normally Sheed-conscious refs. But in his ninth
NBA season Wallace is at last playing deep into June, he is
beloved in the Motor City, and he is practicing solid dental
hygiene.

Wallace is a major part of a fascinating Detroit team that was a
win away from seizing the franchise's first rings since the
infamous Bad Boys went back-to-back in 1989 and '90. With Game 5
scheduled at The Palace on Tuesday, the Pistons were also on the
verge of bringing to a crashing halt the star-crossed run of
L.A.'s darlings of dysfunction, as well as presenting a new
paradigm for NBA success: Get a bunch of medium-priced players
for the same money as two maximum-contract superstars.

The Lakers, who needed a victory in Game 4 to recover from an
88-68 nightmare last Thursday, got a monster game from Shaquille
O'Neal (36 points, 20 rebounds) but a Muenster game from Kobe
Bryant. They went into Tuesday needing to achieve
the unprecedented feat of winning Games 5, 6 and 7, which would
keep the title in the Western Conference, where most pundits
thought it would rest when the season--and even this
series--began.

Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated

But that was before the Pistons began hitting on all cylinders,
drawing motivation from their underdog status, relishing their
outsiders' role in this battle of Hollywood versus Deadwood.
Detroit is a tough, throwback team that functions as "a committee
of 12," as backup center Elden Campbell puts it. Starting center
Ben Wallace is a shot swatter with a stevedore's arms and
electrified hair. Off guard Richard Hamilton is a devastating
streak shooter (31 points in Game 3) even though he eyes the
basket through slits in a windshield--the odd-looking protective
mask he wears to protect his nose, which he broke twice this
season. Point guard Chauncey Billups conducts the team with the
confidence of a Magic Johnson even though he's a hoops gypsy who
has been on six teams in seven years. Rasheed's favored term of
address is not dude or dog but the more retro cats, as in, "Cats
go at you when you're hobbled," or, "Cats in the media never show
us no respect."

Among the Pistons' favorite on-the-road pastimes are shooting
pool and bowling. They sometimes show up en masse at a pool hall,
as they did at Jillians in Indianapolis during the Eastern
Conference finals, resembling an unlikely marriage of The Color
of Money
and West Side Story. Campbell and Ben Wallace are the
best stickmen. Rasheed is the top kegler; the night before Game 4
he even participated in a bowling party hosted by Perry Farrell,
the Pistons' beat writer for the Detroit Free Press.

Indeed, the designated role of Detroit in this series, win or
lose, was to present a stark contrast to its A-list opponents, who
don't do bowling parties. The Lakers have been a riveting team
this season but a hard one to embrace--even for those who bleed
purple-and-gold. Speaking in his hometown of East Lansing, Mich.,
the day before Game 4, vice president and part owner Magic
Johnson criticized L.A. "for not competing," something that could
never be said about the Pistons. "We've got dog-faced gremlins
getting down on all fours ready to scrap," says Rasheed, a cat of
multiple metaphors. No one from the Lakers would describe his
team as dog-faced, though it often appeared dog-tired in the
fourth quarters of the Finals' first four games, during which
Detroit had a combined 103-79 edge.

It wasn't too long ago, though, that Rasheed Wallace was a
ref-baiter who played with all the joy of a man undergoing a
splenectomy. But like most of his teammates, he is also an
unselfish player who came to the Pistons with something to prove.
Everyone in coach Larry Brown's nine-deep rotation was rejected
somewhere else--"So we play with a chip on our shoulder," says
Billups--with the exception of small forward Tayshaun Prince, who
takes umbrage at being picked 23rd in the 2002 draft. "There is
no hidden agenda here except to be on a winner," says the 6'9"
Ben Wallace, an undrafted onetime nobody who played in Washington
and Orlando before going to Motown in 2000-01. "We've all been
through too much to have it any other way."

Detroit general manager Joe Dumars calls his locker room "the
most functional in the NBA." On a team of leaders Ben Wallace and
Billups emerge as first among equals, the former by rock-solid
example and quiet speech ("We'll be all right," Big Ben lullabied
to his mates after an agonizing 99-91 overtime loss in Game 2),
the latter through his gunslinger's confidence. Alone among the
Pistons, Billups played each of the first four games with a
flinty-eyed assurance, rarely losing the ball (only 10 turnovers)
against the intense pressure of Bryant and Derek Fisher, while
deftly using picks to can jumpers (a team-high 22.8 points per
game). "We've made an All-Star out of Chauncey Billups," Los
Angeles coach Phil Jackson said last Saturday in what sounded
like a slight.

John Biever/Sports Illustrated

But, see, Billups thinks of himself as an All-Star, even though
he's never made an All-Star team. "Chauncey was the third pick in
the [1997] draft," says Dumars, "and that sticks with a guy. He's
always thought of himself as good enough to have been the third
pick, and now he's getting the chance to prove it." Still, his
teammates ride him. "Attention, media," third-string point guard
Mike James said before Game 4, after Billups politely rejected
interview requests, "Chauncey Billups will not be talking. He
needs to conserve his energy."

Veteran reserves like Lindsey Hunter and Darvin Ham also play
significant roles in the locker room culture, Hunter speaking
from the perspective of a former champion (with the '02 Lakers),
Ham from that of a former member of feuding clubs (the 2001-02
Bucks, for one). "We don't let the ragging get too intense
because that causes problems," says Ham. "I saw that [in
Milwaukee] with Ray Allen and Anthony Mason. It ripped the team
apart."

"We've got dog-faced gremlins getting down on all fours ready to scrap," says Rasheed, a cat of multiple metaphors. No one from the Lakers would describe his team as dog-faced, though it often appeared dog-tired in the fourth quarters of the Finals' first four games, during which Detroit had a combined 103-79 edge.

The Pistons' cohesiveness carries over to their defense-first
orientation on the court. "We hang our hat on defense," says Ben
Wallace, if you can imagine what a hat would look like sitting on
top of his fro-back 'fro. Through Sunday, Detroit had held the
Lakers to 80.5 points a game, 18.2 below their regular-season
average and 10.0 below their average in their first three playoff
series. "Detroit is the only team in the league that understands
that you can win a championship by focusing on defense for 48
minutes," says Los Angeles backup forward Rick Fox. The credit
for establishing that mentality goes to former Pistons coach Rick
Carlisle and his defensive specialist, Kevin O'Neill, both of
whom went to Detroit in 2001-02. But like an architect challenged
to put nifty additions on a well-designed house, Larry Brown made
the D even better after he replaced the fired Carlisle at the
beginning of this season. Here's how he did it.

• With relentless reinforcement. "Some coaches preach defense but
don't follow through on it, because it's a hard message to get
out every day," says Ham, who has played for five other teams.
"Larry harps on it. It becomes part of the daily sermon."

John Biever/Sports Illustrated

• With a few twists. Much has been made during the series of
Detroit's ability to single-cover both O'Neal (with Ben Wallace
or Campbell) and Bryant (with the long-armed, 6'9" Prince), but
that is overblown. The Pistons doubled down on O'Neal countless
times, though, admittedly, not much during his 36-point outburst
on Sunday. And they did an excellent job of "funneling Kobe into
little cups and folds in the defense," as L.A. assistant Jim
Cleamons put it. Through four games Bryant had hit only 36 of 92
shots (39.1%).

• With an attack that stresses sharing the ball and balancing the
floor. "I really believe that if you play unselfishly on offense,
it carries over to defense," says Brown. "I've taken away some of
our players' ability to score because we're so concerned about
[defense]. But in the long run I think it's important." One of
Brown's overlooked specialties is the way he has his players in a
good position on offense to help set up their transition D. "To
get back balanced is the best way to stop runouts," he says. The
Lakers had just five fast-break points on Sunday; the Pistons,
not exactly a track team, had 21. Stopping the break also
achieves one of Brown's other defensive goals: Keep teams from
dribble-penetrating so they don't get to the foul line. In the
first four games the Pistons shot 69.2% more free throws (132-78)
than L.A.

• With his guards shouldering more responsibility. Just as Brown
hounds Billups and Hamilton about moving the ball on offense, so
does he ask them to extend themselves on defense, at times having
them hawk the ball for 94 feet. Still, Billups never appears
tired at the end of the game, his trademark smirk in place, and
Hamilton, able to run two hours nonstop on an inclined treadmill,
considers himself the best-conditioned athlete in the league.

• With athleticism near the basket. Ben Wallace, the two-time
Defensive Player of the Year, may be the best in the NBA at
jumping out to thwart a pick-and-roll on the perimeter then
recovering to check his man in the paint. And second best at that
difficult art is Rasheed. "A lot of guys do it when they're asked
to," says Ben, "which means they could do it all the time. They
just don't want to." The fact that a career 6.1-points-per-game
scorer who shoots 41.7% from the foul line is Detroit's most
popular player--Eminem sported Ben's number 3 jersey at Game
3--speaks to the importance the Pistons place on defense and
Ben's primacy within that hard-nosed system.

Eight months ago the best guess was that in late June we would be
hearing the soulful sentiments of Karl Malone or Gary Payton,
victors at last, or perhaps the giddy giggling of Shaq, who
always brings his A game, on and off the court, to the Finals.
"Buddy," he said when he was asked why he didn't get more scoring
opportunities in Game 1, "story of my life." But the Lakers,
suddenly and atypically, were pushed to the side of the stage by
a disrespected band of hustlers from Detroit. To hear the Pistons
tell it, no one gave them a chance to score a point in the
championship series, let alone win a game. They are exaggerating,
of course, but there is little doubt that a whole lot of cats
underestimated them.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)