It had been 14 years since the Detroit Pistons group of “Bad Boys,” which included Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and others won their second consecutive NBA title. After several lean years in the 1990s and a uniform change, the Pistons were back (in their old uniforms) and in contention once again for NBA glory.
What they accomplished in 2004 was not only an NBA championship for themselves, but the opportunity to end the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty of the early 2000s.
Under first-year head coach Larry Brown, Detroit finished seven games behind first place Indiana in the Central Division to earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference. After topping Milwaukee four games to one in the quarterfinals, the Pistons fell behind New Jersey 3-2 in the semifinals. Detroit lost Game 5, 127-120, in triple overtime despite Chauncey Billups 45-foot shot at the end of regulation to force overtime.
But Detroit held New Jersey to only 144 points combined over the final two games to win the series. Facing top-seed Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, Detroit won in six games to advance to the NBA finals.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles won the Pacific Division by one game over Sacramento, but ended up with the No. 2 seed behind Minnesota. After knocking off Houston in the quarterfinals in five games, the Lakers season looked to be over after falling behind two games to none to the defending champion Spurs in the semifinals. However, the Lakers won four straight to win the series, which is best remembered for Derrick Fisher’s turn around, game-winning jump shot with 0.4 seconds remaining to win Game 5, 74-73. After a one-year absence, the Lakers returned to the NBA finals after dispatching Minnesota in six games.
Few people gave Detroit a chance in the finals. Not only had it been six years since an Eastern Conference team won the championship, but the Pistons had to defeat a team with four potential future Hall of Famers: Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton. It was Los Angeles’s offensive weapons against Detroit’s crushing defense.
Apparently, Detroit did not listen to the predictions. Despite allowing 34 points by O’Neal, the Pistons shut down the rest of the Lakers potent offense in an 87-75 Game 1 win. It looked like Detroit would go up 2-0 but Bryant hit a game-tying three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation, and Los Angeles pulled out a 99-91 overtime win to tie the series at one game apiece. The Lakers appeared back on track.
With the series shifting to The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit held Los Angeles to a franchise playoff-low 68 points to win Game 3 by 20 points. O’Neal totaled 36 points and 20 rebounds in Game 4, but the Pistons Rasheed Wallace tallied 26 points and 13 rebounds to lift Detroit to a shocking 3-1 lead after an 88-80 triumph.
While the Lakers seemed to have the momentum after Game 2, they now appeared out of gas. Playing without the injured Malone, the Lakers were unable to stop the Pistons trio of Billups, Wallace and Richard Hamilton. On June 15, Detroit won Game 5, 100-87, to clinch the Pistons third NBA title and the first professional championship for Brown. He previously coached Kansas to the 1988 NCAA Men’s Basketball title.
In addition, Chauncey Billups became the first NBA Finals MVP since 1989 to have not been an All-Star that same season. Ironically, the last man with that honor was Billups' general manager, Joe Dumars, with Detroit.
After winning the championship, Detroit returned to the finals in 2005, but lost a hard-fought seven game series to San Antonio. The Pistons advanced to the Eastern Conference finals from 2006 to 2008, but lost each year to Miami, Cleveland and Boston.
The Lakers fall to mediocrity was dramatic and swift. A dynasty that won three championships in four years crumbled. Head coach Phil Jackson resigned, but later returned as head coach for the 2005-06 season. O’Neal was traded to Miami after an alleged fallout with Bryant. He later helped lead the Heat to an NBA title in 2006. Payton and Rick Fox were traded to Boston, and Fisher signed with Golden State. Malone sat out the first half of the season and eventually retired in February of 2005.
A new look Lakers took the court for the 2004-05 season under new head coach Rudy Tomjanovich. However, he resigned due to health problems after only 41 games. Los Angeles finished the season 34-48, tied for last in the division. They also missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history.
Two more rebuilding seasons saw Los Angeles lose in the first round to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007, but the Lakers returned to the finals in 2008. After losing to Boston, they won back-to-back titles in 2009 over Orlando and 2010 against Boston.