PLAYOFF SERIES: NBA Finals; Pistons lead 1-0.
This is not the first time the Los Angeles Lakers got off to a surprisingly bad start in the NBA Finals against a team coached by Larry Brown.
Time will tell if this one was just another small bump in their road to a championship, or a real sign their title chances are in jeopardy.
For starters, the Lakers will need to find a way to overcome the Pistons’ stifling defense as the teams head into Game 2.
“I don’t want them to be satisfied about winning the first game here. We want to win the second game,” Brown said after Detroit’s stunning 87-75 victory in Sunday’s series opener at Staples Center.
The Hall of Fame coach also may be thinking back to 2001, when he coached the Philadelphia 76ers to an upset win at Los Angeles in Game 1 of the NBA Finals only to lose the next four games.
Seeing Brown endure a similar fate would be hard to believe after how well his team defended the potent Los Angeles offense on Sunday.
O’Neal went 13-of-16 from the field for 34 points and Bryant scored 25 on 10-of-27 shooting, but their teammates combined to shoot 20 percent (6-for-30) and none had more than five points.
“I don’t know if we could ever defend better,” Brown said. “We contested shots. We did an unbelievable job, and I think that’s what it’s going to take.”
O’Neal also had 11 rebounds, but did commit six turnovers as Detroit threw a bevy of defensive looks at him. He was tough for the Pistons’ array of big men to stop when he did get the ball but that did not happen often enough in the second half, when O’Neal took just eight shots and did not get to the free-throw line.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson suggested O’Neal was tired late in the game, but that comment did not sit well with the superstar center.
“Tired of waiting,” O’Neal responded. “I don’t think a person going 13-for-16 is a sign of being tired by any means.”
While Bryant took some questionable shots, the Pistons’ pressure defense had something to do with that. It also caused problems for the rest of the Lakers, many of whom did not look particularly ready for the tenacious defense of their opposition.
“They did an incredible job executing,” said Bryant, who was 1-of-6 from 3-point range. said. “Larry Brown prepared them extremely well and they came out and carried out their game plan to perfection. It was a good game played by them for 48 minutes.”
As he did during the regular season, Chauncey Billups outplayed Gary Payton at point guard by scoring 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Billups’ future Hall of Fame counterpart was plagued by foul trouble, contributing only three points in 31 minutes.
Billups scored 53 points in helping Detroit split two regular-season meetings with the Lakers in November.
“I don’t know what it is about Chauncey and the Lakers, but whatever it is, I hope he can continue it,” teammate Corliss Williamson said.
The performance by Billups helped make up for a quiet day from Richard Hamilton, who had 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting and committed six turnovers. Hamilton scored at least 20 points in every game during Detroit’s series win over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.
Hamilton, though, was one of seven Pistons to score more than five points. The Lakers had just two.
Detroit shot 46.2 percent and made 6-of-12 from 3-point range, compared to 3-for-13 by Los Angeles.
“We’re never scared,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to go out there and have each other’s back.”
The Lakers’ scoring load was too heavy on O’Neal and Bryant in Game 1, partly because Payton and Karl Malone did not look very desperate to finally win an NBA championship.
Malone did have 11 rebounds, but went 2-of-9 from the field and had a career playoff-low four points in 44 minutes. He also did little to slow down an ailing Rasheed Wallace, who scored six of his 14 points in the fourth quarter and had eight rebounds in just 29 minutes.
“I expect more out of me, I really do,” Malone said. “I didn’t make shots. I didn’t set screens. I played like a first- or second-year player in the league.”
The next three games are scheduled for Detroit, starting with Thursday night’s Game 3.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Pistons - 3rd seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-3, East semifinals; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, East finals. Lakers - 2nd seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-2, West semifinals; beat Minnesota Timberwolves 4-2, West finals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Pistons - Hamilton, 21.0 ppg; Ben Wallace, 14.1 rpg; Billups, 6.0 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 25.1 ppg and 5.7 apg; O’Neal, 13.8 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 1-1. Each team won at home in November. The first meeting was tied after three quarters before Los Angeles pulled out a 94-89 victory at Staples Center on Nov. 14. Four days later, Detroit won 106-96 at home thanks to a 33-point fourth quarter. O’Neal averaged 20.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists, while Bryant was held to 17.5 points per game.