AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP)—The Lakers left the court in pieces. Karl Malone kept his head down, Shaquille O’Neal absently slapped a few high-fives and Kobe Bryant jogged in late, encased in his own thoughts.
The Pistons celebrated in concert, pulling their wives and children and entourages onto an increasingly shaky stage at the center of The Palace. They crowded around coach Larry Brown, who stood next to the Larry O’Brien Trophy— a small, golden monument to the glories of teamwork.
“We did it the right way: working hard, working together,” said president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, who built the first championship team in Detroit since his playing days. “This isn’t a star system we’ve got here. I just think this is the ultimate team.”
Detroit’s 100-87 victory in Game 5 Tuesday night ended one of the most surprising NBA Finals in the last half-century—the triumph of togetherness over talent, collaboration over celebrity.
Richard Hamilton scored 21 points, Ben Wallace had 18 points and 22 rebounds and Chauncey Billups got six assists in the runaway clincher. The Pistons surged ahead together, maintained the lead together and held a long, sweet celebration together.
“Nobody gave us a chance, but we felt we had a great chance,” said Billups, the finals MVP with 21 points and 5.2 assists per game. “They had Shaq and Kobe, but we just felt we were a better team.”
The Pistons won three straight home games to finish off the franchise’s first title in 14 seasons, the third in franchise history. These Pistons are more Good Guys than Bad Boys, much less iconic than the star-studded Lakers, but much better friends and teammates.
Detroit is the first champion from the Eastern Conference since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1998, ending the West’s five-year reign over the league with a demonstration of the biggest difference between the conferences: consistent, hard-nosed defense.
“This team is built on defense, everybody knows that,” said Wallace, who finished five incredible games of defense on O’Neal, held 10 points below his career NBA Finals average. “They’ve got a lot of offensive weapons, but we got up in them pretty good.”
The clincher was the most one-sided game of a lopsided series, essentially ending when the Pistons made a 17-4 run in the third quarter. Each player got a curtain call of sorts, with Hamilton removing his distinctive clear face mask and pointing at it triumphantly, no longer concerned for his oft-broken nose.
The team announced its Thursday parade schedule with 2:56 to play, drawing more cheers. Owner Bill Davidson was one of the first people on the floor as the confetti fell, celebrating the third championship in eight months for his sports empire—and nearly getting broken in half by Ben Wallace’s hug.
“I always have to be a little careful that I say I like them both equally, but this is a tremendous night,” said the 81-year-old billionaire, the Pistons’ majority owner since 1974 and owner of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the WNBA champion Detroit Shock.
While his players and their fans celebrated, Brown shook a few hands and slipped away through a side tunnel. Moments after clinching the first championship of his 21-year NBA career, his only reaction was to wipe his face with a handkerchief.
Brown either had tears or sweat in his eyes—probably a bit of both.
“I haven’t, in my life, had disappointments too many times coaching this game,” said Brown, the first coach to win titles in the NBA and the NCAA. “I told them before the game, it would be a great statement if we had an opportunity to win, because we do play the right way, and we are truly a team.”
The locker room was bedlam, with Lindsey Hunter spraying champagne and Hamilton lighting the room with his smile. Kid Rock’s black felt fedora was drenched with bubbly, and so was his stringy blond hair.
There were no stars hanging out with the Lakers, who failed to win a title for carpetbagging veterans Malone and Gary Payton. Malone couldn’t even dress for Game 5, sidelined by a painful right knee injury for the first time in 194 career postseason games. It’s probably a torn ligament, the Mailman said.
The fallout from this shocking loss won’t be felt in Los Angeles for several months, because the Lakers are almost certain to make major changes to a team that was a title favorite both 10 months and two weeks ago.
Coach Phil Jackson said there’s only a slim chance he’ll return for a sixth season with the Lakers. Bryant, 29-for-86 in the Lakers’ four losses, reiterated his plan to opt out of his contract this summer.
“It’s going to be a funny summer,” O’Neal said. “Everyone’s going to take care of their own business, and everyone’s going to do what’s best for them. I don’t know what that entails.”
When the Lakers retool, they might want to look at the latest model from Detroit.
“We’ve probably set a blueprint for how teams are going to start putting their pieces together now,” Hunter said. “We’re so deep and so good, up anddown the roster. Nobody could compete.”
Former Lakers C Elden Campbell won the first title of his 14 NBA seasons, third-longest successful wait in league history. Malone and John Stockton played 19 seasons without a title. … Detroit’s Mehmet Okur scoredseven points while becoming the first Turkish player to win an NBA title.