The nature of the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons’ underdog status is well-documented.
Throughout the 2004 campaign, the Pistons were often labeled as a star-less, offensively challenged squad out of the East who’d serve as mere fodder for whoever emerged from the rugged yet refined West. As Ric Bucher recently shared in the Bleacher Report’s oral history of the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers, things were never that simple.
Despite the Lakers stacking their squad months earlier, signing future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to pair with the well-established Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and despite a vast majority of basketball society expecting a steady postseason romp culminating in another L.A. championship, various members of the Lakers organization insist they knew of their imminent demise at the hands of the Pistons before the 2004 Finals matchup was even underway.
Rick Fox, Lakers forward: I knew we’d get exposed. I hoped we’d pull it off. Who doesn’t want a fourth championship? But I remember back in January or December, watching the Detroit Pistons and having the utmost respect for them in the regular season. They held six or seven teams in a row to under 70 points. I was listening to our team and I personally felt we didn’t have enough respect for the Pistons. We thought we were going to steamroll them. And that’s how we, as a group, behind the scenes, were talking about it.
Phil Jackson, Lakers coach, 1999-2004, 2005-2011: When I was sitting down with the players, I said, “You just don’t understand this. You don’t have a chance in hell against Detroit. All the emotional momentum is for Detroit. The Comeback Team. The underdogs. They had the shot block at the end of the Indiana game—Prince blocked Reggie Miller’s shot and saved the ballgame. They won a seven-game series. So it’s gonna be a huge emotional thing.”
Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard: Honestly Detroit played extremely well. They were a well-oiled machine, man—on both ends of the floor. They were sharp as s–t. Extremely sharp, extremely crisp, extremely methodical and it was well deserved.
As it turns out, the only folks more certain of a dominant Detroit performance were the Pistons themselves. Starting point guard Chauncey Billups detailed his team’s thorough gameplan, consisting of a series of unusual approaches to the Lakers’ potent offensive frontline.
Chauncey Billups: Our game plan was very calculated. We knew we were going to play Shaq straight-up. We knew there was no way we could stop Shaq straight-up. And there was also no way we could stop Kobe straight-up. But, if we’re going to play Shaq straight-up, [the Lakers’] eyes are going to get big, which means they’re going to keep throwing it down there. We’re telling Ben the whole time, “Take fouls when you need to, but don’t get yourself into foul trouble. You need to give up a layup, cool, we’re going to get what we want on the other side.” But what’s going to happen is Mr. Bryant is going to get a little discouraged with getting no touches and now the second half comes around…now he’s pressing. He’s going to start coming down and just breaking the offense. When you do that, you’re done—you’re playing right into our hands. Even if you start making those shots, you’re finished.
Sure enough, just as Pistons head coach Larry Brown imagined, the Lakers force-fed O’Neal at the start of each game throughout the series, resulting in numerous power dunks and easy finishes, before an anxious Bryant began firing away from the perimeter, creating a distant and ineffective Lakers attack that left O’Neal pining for touches under the hoop.
The end result? A convincing 4-1 series victory, earning Detroit their third NBA championship in franchise history. In a finals series many had taken to labeling as the league’s first “five-game sweep”, members of the 2004 Lakers are quick to offer praise where it’s due.
Kobe Bryant: They were more prepared than us. They were sharper. So that’s not like the Celtics championship in ’08, where we had significantly less talent than that Celtics team. Even after losing that 20-point lead or something, I still felt like we had a chance to turn things around. That Detroit series? That wasn’t the case. Those dudes were sharp and we had to go deeper into our offense and we just weren’t prepared to do it.
Phil Jackson: Chauncey was the MVP. We tried to put pressure on Chauncey, then he would fall down and go to the foul line. We couldn’t even press them. Chauncey was using screen-rolls, and we couldn’t cover it. I tried Kobe on Hamilton, then Chauncey was beating Gary Payton. He was too strong and big for Fish. I think I tried everything but a zone. I put Kobe on Chauncey. That was a foul situation. Chauncey put him in foul situations.
In the end, it seems Rasheed Wallace was right after all.
Detroit was never afraid of them cats.
Read Bleacher Report’s entire Oral History of the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers here.