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Laker Title Dream Ends in Nightmare

The underdog Detroit Pistons defeat L.A., 100-87, to win the NBA championship.

June 16, 2004|David Ferrell and Tim Brown | Times Staff Writers

The dream-team Lakers, whose roster of superstars made them one of the most compelling stories in sports, met an inglorious end to their turbulent season Tuesday, losing to the Detroit Pistons, 100-87, in the final game of the National Basketball Assn. playoffs.

The Pistons' victory, at Auburn Hills, Mich., was far more lopsided than the final score indicated, and gave the unheralded underdogs the NBA championship in five games.

"We just took it to 'em," Piston forward Tayshaun Prince said. "We knew we could play with anybody in this league and I think we showed it."

The loss crushed any Laker hopes of capturing a fourth title in five years, and may have helped ensure the breakup of the current roster and coaching staff -- considered one of the greatest collections of talent the league had ever seen.

"This Laker team will never be assembled again," said former Laker Jack Haley, now an analyst with Fox Sports television. "This was a one-time shot."

Injuries, age and infighting were blamed for the failure of a team that had been expected to be a juggernaut. The Lakers featured four players considered probable Hall of Famers -- Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

They were directed by a head coach, Phil Jackson, who was seeking to break a record by winning a championship for the 10th time. After the final game of what he has called one of his most difficult seasons, Jackson told reporters that the chance he would return was "pretty slim."

In Tuesday's loss, the Lakers jumped in front, 10-4, but O'Neal picked up two early fouls and the Lakers again withered under Detroit's pressure. The Pistons led by 10 at halftime and pushed the advantage to 27 points early in the fourth quarter.

Bryant shot poorly again, hitting only seven of 21 shots, and O'Neal was outplayed by Pistons center Ben Wallace, who outrebounded him 22 to eight.

The victory gave Detroit Coach Larry Brown his first NBA title at age 63, and Piston owner Bill Davidson his second team championship in 2004 -- his Tampa Bay Lightning won hockey's Stanley Cup earlier this month.

For the Lakers, this season's problems arose even before training camp. Bryant's arrest last summer in Eagle County, Colo., on felony sexual-assault charges, led to public sniping between Bryant and O'Neal and intensified the media glare on the team. Bryant was forced to make repeated trips to pretrial hearings, and on several occasions flew to rejoin his teammates just before game time.

Though Bryant commanded headlines with his brilliant play after some of those trips, there was recurring tension between him and O'Neal over how to divide the scoring burden in the Lakers' offense, and between him and Jackson, who tried to channel much of the attack through O'Neal.

Malone, 40, and Payton, 35, accepted substantial pay cuts to join the Lakers specifically to try to win a championship this year -- a goal each man had sought as a crowning achievement to a long career. But Malone, the NBA's second-leading career scorer, missed half the regular season with a knee injury, and was severely hobbled during the Finals against the Pistons. He did not suit up Tuesday night.

The volatile Payton, who had difficulty fitting into an offense structured around O'Neal and Bryant, was vocal about his unhappiness, found himself sharing time at point guard with Derek Fisher and played poorly during portions of the playoffs, particularly against the swarming Detroit defense. Payton scored only two points Tuesday and did not hit double figures once in the Finals.

Except for one exceptional performance by O'Neal, who scored 36 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a Game 4 loss, the Lakers were consistently unable to mount an effective attack against a defense that put two and three men on Bryant and shut down driving lanes to the basket.

Detroit's defense was the toughest of any team in the post-season. Against the NBA's winningest regular-season franchise, the Indiana Pacers, in the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit gave up fewer than 80 points in five of six games, and twice held Indiana to 65 -- a total most teams reach by the end of three quarters.

The Lakers fared scarcely better than the Pacers, failing to reach 80 in two games and scoring exactly 80 in a third.

Tuesday's defeat was heartbreaking to many Laker fans who expected the star-studded team to breeze through the Finals after vanquishing the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and a tough Minnesota Timberwolves team that was led by league MVP Kevin Garnett, in the first two playoff rounds.

"They couldn't get their game together. Seriously, I think there was too much hype when they got Payton and Malone," said Laker fan Francisco Sanchez Jr., watching a telecast of the finale at Staples Center. "They got too many good players. Everyone wanted to be a superstar, but you can't have too many good players on one team."

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