LOS ANGELES – Sunday night in Milwaukee and New Jersey and Indiana, previously dispatched victims of these Detroit Pistons enjoyed the first game of the NBA finals immensely.
This was Detroit doing what Detroit does, acting like a wobbly carnival mirror that makes everyone look silly. And not just some lowly team from the East but, if you can believe it, the vaunted, Hall of Fame-studded Los Angeles Lakers.
Detroit 87, L.A. 75. The Pistons Birdstoned the Lakers and helped themselves to a 1-0 finals lead.
But this was more than that. This was L.A. shooting just 39.7 percent from the floor and a meager 23.1 percent from beyond the three. This was no Lakers other than Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant scoring more than five points. This was the pretty, presumptive champs scoring just 34 second-half points.
This was L.A. looking an awful lot like the Pacers, Nets and Bucks before them: ugly.
"Well, you know, to hold them to 75 points, I think is pretty incredible," Pistons coach Larry Brown said. "I don't know if we could ever defend better."
Dare we say, welcome to Eastern Conference basketball?
Much maligned and not very easy on the eyes, the Pistons' defensive-minded, possession-oriented game isn't much for SportsCenter highlights but it sure works, doesn't it?
Give everyone in red, white and blue credit here. Brown had a masterful game plan that focused on not double-teaming Shaq. He let the big guy have his way – 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting – but completely snuffed out the Lakers' role players who excel at knocking down open jumpers but are not adept at creating their own offense.
"We didn't let the role players just line up shots," Pistons center Ben Wallace said.
Then Brown threw the long-armed Tayshaun Prince on Kobe and made the Lakers' other superstar find a way to shot over him. Bryant had 25, but it took 27 shots to get there.
"[Prince] is going to be an interesting puzzle to solve," Bryant admitted.
As for the rest of the Lakers, who knows what they were doing other than standing around and watching? Karl Malone and Gary Payton both signed here last summer with this exact moment in mind. But it isn't going to be that easy against a Pistons team that makes everything difficult.
The two future Hall of Famers combined for a measly seven points on 3-of-13 shooting. This was a double no-show.
"I didn't help us out at all," Malone said.
He wasn't alone. It wasn't just the library-quiet Staples Center crowd that was blasé and bored. It was the Lakers themselves.
"Tonight we just came out too lackadaisical," Shaq said. "They just wanted it a little more than we did tonight."
This, of course, is always the Lakers' excuse. This is the most talented team in the league but also the most air-headed. L.A. routinely gives away games in a series only to storm back and win convincingly. Justifiably, there was little panic in the Lakers' eyes late Sunday night.
"It's a seven-game series," Bryant said, "and there is always [Game 2]."
But L.A. chooses to ignore what Detroit did here at its own peril. Phil Jackson is famous for surmising that a playoff series doesn't really start until someone wins on the road. Well, this one has started.
It is trite to say that this series has broken down along stereotypical storylines – the star-studded team from Hollywood against the blue-collar bunch from the Motor City – but there is something to it.
Maybe more importantly, the Pistons have adopted another characteristic from their hardscrabble hometown: They aren't afraid of anything.
Especially the Lakers' reputations.
"I don't look at ourselves as underdogs," Brown said.
Tuesday we will find out whether this was just another Laker tank job. We'll find out whether Malone, Payton and the rest feel like actually showing up for more than the championship parade. We'll find out whether L.A.'s talent will be, in the end, overwhelming.
Or we'll find out that no matter how much the basketball world wants to sleep on Detroit, wants to blame games like these on the opponents' inabilities, wants to ridicule its humble game plans, these ugly wins and humiliating shooting nights are a coincidence that keeps on happening.