Sixteen years after ending the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Los Angeles Lakers, former Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups is carrying the same swagger that allowed his team to knock off the three-time champions.
While discussing that Pistons team on ESPN's Hoop Streams on Wednesday, Billups mentioned the moment he knew his underdog roster would win Detroit's first title since 1989-90.
He was almost entirely right. The Lakers won only one game in the series, a Game 2 thriller that ended in a 99-91 overtime victory at home.
But after stealing Game 1 at Staples Center, Detroit hosted Games 3-5 and virtually ran the Lakers out of town, punctuating their performance with a 13-point win in the decisive Game 5. Detroit outscored L.A. 454-409 for the series, while Billups averaged 21.0 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 47.1 percent from three.
"If you look at the names on the backs of the jerseys, yeah, they should have swept us," Billups said. "They really should have."
It's hard to argue with that point. The 2003-04 Lakers featured four Hall of Famers in O'Neal, Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, to say nothing of Phil Jackson and Tex Winter coaching from the sidelines. Los Angeles was a +140 favorite to win the NBA title at the start of the season (bet $100 to win $140), while the Pistons were +1,500, per Basketball Reference. By the time the two teams met in the Finals, the Lakers had moved to -550 to capture the title, while Detroit opened at +400.
The Pistons were hardly pushovers, though. Between Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, there were plenty of reasons to believe Detroit could test L.A. The Pistons also had their own Hall of Famer on the bench in Larry Brown.
"When you get that deep in the season, most of the time, the most connected team will come out on top," Billups said. "I just felt like styles make fights, and our style against theirs was superior."
Billups may not have known how right he was at the time. After they lost to the Pistons, the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat, sent Payton to the Boston Celtics, essentially forced Malone into retirement and watched as Jackson resigned as head coach.
It was a messy breakup that may have been inevitable at the time, but Billups and the Pistons did all they could to speed up that process. That includes cheering when the Western Conference's top team became the only thing standing in their way of a championship.