A series turned upside down

Dan Wetzel

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – With each sub-20-point quarter, with each Karl Malone limp, with each harmless Gary Payton effort, the truth about these Los Angeles Lakers comes into clearer focus.

The Lakers simply aren't that good, that tough, that deep. And Detroit is.

The Detroit Pistons laid a whipping on L.A. here on Thursday, 88-68, taking a 2-1 lead in the finals. If it weren't for a disastrous final 37 seconds of regulation and a Kobe Bryant bailout three-pointer in Game 2, the Pistons – yes, the Pistons – would be pulling brooms out of the closet.

Give Detroit plenty of credit not just for outplaying Los Angeles in every facet of the game but also for doing something in this series that few teams have been able to do: separate reality from perception and stare down the Lakers as the equals they are.

How bad was the Game 3 beatdown? It turned into a "U-5" game for Detroit. With two minutes left Pistons coach Larry Brown walked down to the far end of his bench and said, "You five, get in the game." Even Darko "The Human Victory Cigar" Milicic saw action.

Was it just a perfect-storm performance by Detroit?

"This is as good as we can play," Brown said.

And do the Lakers look like a team that wants anything but summer to come?

"At halftime I told the team, 'I don't think we can play any worse than we played in the first half as far as shooting the ball and executing in the open floor,' " Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But we tried hard in the second half to duplicate it."

There was no lack of blame to go around for L.A. Bryant had just 11 points. Shaquille O'Neal went for just 14 and eight rebounds. No one else got to double figures. The Lakers shot just 36.5 percent from the floor. Through three quarters they had three offensive rebounds.

"We've got to give them all the credit in the world, but we're just [playing] right into their hands," O'Neal said.

Detroit still hasn't played a truly great game in this series (at one point on Thursday they went 8:19 without a field goal), but the Pistons are closing in on springing perhaps the biggest finals upset in NBA history. Prior to this series almost no non-Piston fans truly believed this was possible.

Even people who respected what the Pistons did in the Eastern Conference playoffs underestimated them. That was the East, we said. This is Los Angeles.

But these are not your older brother's Lakers. The three-peat team of a couple of years go beat you a dozen different ways, first and foremost by getting in your head.

Now, outside of Shaq and Kobe there is nothing to fear. Malone is hurt, in his 40s and dealing with a steady diet of Wallaces. Payton simply has lost his mind. Derek Fisher, Luke Walton and Kareem Rush are trying, but really, if a team is counting on those three for a championship then there are problems with the roster.

Detroit, meanwhile, just keeps churning on, as consistent and relentless as a Ford assembly line. The backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton combined for 50. Tayshaun Prince hung all over Bryant. And the fellas inside outrebounded L.A. by 12.

All of which played to the hooting delight of a raucous crowd that made the Palace the equivalent of playing inside a thunderstorm.

"We feel we are a great unit," Billups said. "We know they have some great individual players that are almost unstoppable one-on-one. But for us, we can hurt you in so many ways. I think we are just a very, very good basketball team."

This series is obviously far from over. The Lakers need just one win here in suburban Detroit to send the series back to California, their home-court advantage intact. But that is easier said than done.

"We're faced with a heck of a challenge right now," Bryant admitted.

The Lakers are talking a good game. They say they can come back. But Detroit doesn't seem worried either.

"We are just going to let them talk," Ben Wallace said.

From what we've seen so far, the pre-finals scouting reports have been turned upside down. Detroit has been the better team while L.A. now is looking to find a way to steal a game.

Perhaps there still is some Laker pride running through this team, some extra gear it still can slip into to bring home another title. But with each fumbling Laker performance, with each show of strength by Detroit, that becomes more difficult to envision.