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On All Cylinders

Times Staff Writer

These are the champions?

The Detroit Pistons aren’t in the sunbelt and don’t have a single megastar, let alone two, as did the Lakers, whom they put out of their misery last spring.

The Pistons don’t have a teen icon like LeBron James, who’s all over TV because he sells sneakers to his fellow teenagers. The Pistons do have Darko Milicic, who’s 19 but is rarely allowed off the bench in this grown-ups-first operation.

The Pistons aren’t menaces, like their Bad Boy teams of the ‘80s, although they often score in the 80s.

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So even if Nike bills the league as “the chamber of fear” in James’ commercials, and Shaquille O’Neal’s mug is on all the magazine covers and Shaq does ESPN’s conversation of the week every two weeks, the Pistons aren’t going away, either.

“They know now,” says Chauncey Billups of their standing around the league. “I hope they’re not disrespecting us or we’re going to have to hold ‘em under 60 instead of 70.

“I mean, we’re coming the same way every night, man, defense, sharing the ball, just playing all out. I mean, that’s not going to change. Like Coach says, shots are going to go in, they’re going to pop out, but you can always give effort, you can always play defense perfect.”

Coach is Larry Brown, at least for the moment. Right now, he’s out after hip surgery, so he finally gets the vacation everyone said he needed after his Olympic summer, but he’s due back this week.

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This is his seventh NBA stop (23 more to go before he touches ‘em all!), plus two at UCLA and Kansas (not counting his second stay at UCLA, which lasted only a day).

Nor does this seem like that dream job Brown has always been looking for (coachable players, understanding bosses, near the beach). Piston insiders were speculating he was a short-term fix before he arrived.

Without benefit of warm winters, marquee names and glitz in the stands (sorry, Kid Rock), the Pistons are just a team, although they’re an awfully good one.

They are what NBA Commissioner David Stern has been touting all these years, even as he let his marketeers put highlight plays on the league’s website and drooled over James’ commercial impact.

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The Pistons weren’t a miracle but they were a long shot. No other game is influenced more by a great player and the Lakers had Shaq and Kobe Bryant, the Pacers had Jermaine O’Neal and the Nets had Jason Kidd (and a 3-2 lead, going home for Game 6 in their second-round series).

The Pistons, on the other hand, had each other.

“Even from the players’ standpoint, they all know that to play at the top level, it has to be a team game,” says Indiana President Donnie Walsh, one of Brown’s former bosses. “That was how the Lakers played when they won, but not last year.

“Detroit did it backwards. They didn’t have a superstar, perception-wise. They do. Rasheed Wallace’s one of the top 10, 15 players. When we play them, we always know we have to be ready for him. But obviously, [Richard] Hamilton is that type of player too. They have the players but they play off that and that’s what the team is.”

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Next Stop: Motor City

Making it all the more improbable, this was someone else’s team.

Arriving after they won 29, 42 and 32 games in the previous three seasons, Rick Carlisle won 50 twice, was coach of the year the first time and fourth in the balloting the next.

Then he was toppled in a palace coup, obliging General Manager Joe Dumars to grab the best coach he could find: Brown.

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Dumars wanted to play their young guys, Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur, looking to the future. Brown played veterans and was usually gone by the future.

“He came out of the clear blue,” Brown says of Dumars. “I thought I’m going to the Clippers or Washington or Houston. I never even dreamed of this opportunity but it was different. ...

“I didn’t know how to approach this. I did respect what Rick Carlisle did. They just beat us [the Philadelphia 76ers] in the playoffs. I knew the success they had. I admired the way they played. It wasn’t something that I thought was an accident they won. They played hard, they tried to guard, they played the right way.

“So I admired everything. Now I’m coming in and I don’t have his same background as a coach. I’m also asked to change some of the personnel and play younger people. I felt on a lot of eggshells. ...

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“They were a team with a lot of veterans and all of a sudden when we sat down to talk, [Dumars] said, ‘Larry, I’m going to move this guy, this guy and this guy, I’d like us to play these young guys. In all honesty, I don’t think we’re going to be a great team but we’re going to have a great future and I want us to be great for a long time.’

“And that kind of was a little different than what I anticipated. And then he pointed out, ‘As much as I love Chucky [Atkins] and Corliss [Williamson], with their contracts, they’re the next group that possibly has to go because we’ve got Ben [Wallace] coming up.’ ”

Predictably, Brown soon wanted veteran help, namely Portland’s Rasheed Wallace. Dumars held off ... until Atlanta acquired Rasheed to cut him for cap room, kept him a day and forwarded him to Detroit for the low, low bargain price of Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, Bobby Sura and Zeljko Rebraca.

With the 6-foot-11 Rasheed, the Pistons became a big, versatile team in one swoop and began their journey to the NBA Finals, if slowly.

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In the second round, they trailed New Jersey, 3-2, going back to the Meadowlands, where the Nets got off to a 13-2 lead before the Pistons came all the way back.

The Pistons won an excruciating six-game East finals against Indiana, scoring in the 80s only once. Appropriately, they won Game 6, 69-65, after Ron Artest committed a flagrant foul and sent Hamilton to the line to break a 65-65 tie.

It was 32-27 at halftime. Even as the Lakers, who were already in, warned each other against overconfidence, Karl Malone, the wisest of them, noted, “Seems like over here in the West, you score 33 points, you’re down 30 by halftime.”

Everyone was right about one thing. It would be a mismatch.

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Drop That Slingshot

From the Laker standpoint, lots of things went wrong.

Malone hurt his knee. Horace Grant was already out. Their interior defense collapsed. Bryant, who had carried them, went into a shooting slump.

From the Piston standpoint, they were young and deep and enjoyed a huge energy edge (total rebounds were 228-188 and free-throw attempts were 171-111). Prince, 6-9 and cat-quick, helped put Bryant in his slump, with help, which was available since they were getting away with single-covering O’Neal. At the other end, Billups destroyed the Lakers on pick-and-rolls, which O’Neal played softly.

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Next thing you knew, it was over, and so was that incarnation of the Lakers. “None of us really expected that, to win in five,” Billups says. "... The one game that we lost [Game 2, which Bryant tied with a three-pointer at the end of regulation, after the Lakers came from six down in the last 37 seconds], we pretty much had that game.

“The rest of the games were pretty much blowouts. I’ve never seen any Finals like that. It was bizarre.

“Our togetherness and our defense and our cohesiveness out there. And that team was really divided with the whole Kobe and Shaq thing, and not playing against a defensive team like this. All those things kind of added up. We were just too strong as a team, as a unit....

“I talked to Ray Allen over the summer. I talked to Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell.... I was down in Dallas, I saw Jason Terry, Michael Finley, [Jerry] Stackhouse. They were all in agreement, they all want to play team ball like we did. That’s the envy of the league, to go out and not have the pressure be on one, two or three guys to carry the load. ...

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“They want to go somewhere where they play team ball, where everyone’s giving 100% effort. You see Vince [Carter] trying to get out of Toronto, Ray trying to get out of Seattle. You can average 20 your whole lifetime but until you achieve that team goal, you can feel kind of empty.”

For his part, Brown is taking it a day at a time, as he always has.

“I’m getting better,” he says, laughing. “I lasted four [seasons] in Indiana, six in Philly.

“But I don’t anticipate being here long. Not because I’ll have an opportunity or because I’ll look for something better. I’m 64 years old. I want to be with my family. I don’t want to shortchange these guys. I think I want to come every day to practice with enthusiasm and energy and I don’t know if I can keep doing that.”

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Of course, Brown’s families have always been great about following Dad wherever he went. In any case, if his time was up now, he’d have built the Pistons a monument, titled “2003-04 NBA champions,” with all 12 players on it.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

They Stop to Conquer

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Detroit won the 2003-04 NBA title with a dominating defense. A look at the last 10 NBA champions with average points allowed per game during the regular season and league rank:

*--* Year Team Avg. Rank * 2003-04 Detroit Pistons 84.3 T1st* * 2002-03 San Antonio 90.4 3rd * 2001-02 Lakers 94.1 T9 * 2000-01 Lakers 97.2 23rd * 1999-00 Lakers 92.3 6th * 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs 84.7 3rd * 1997-98 Chicago Bulls 89.6 3rd * 1996-97 Chicago Bulls 92.3 6th * 1995-96 Chicago Bulls 92.9 T2nd * 1994-95 Houston Rockets 101.4 14th

*--*

* -- Tied with San Antonio

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