How many pundits chose the Detroit Pistons when making their predictions for winner of the 2003-04 NBA title? The likely answer is zero, but the Pistons overcame numerous obstacles to do just that. A decade after Detroit’s historic season, let’s take a look back.
The Regular Season
The Pistons may not have been viewed as legitimate championship contenders, but they were hardly a bad team. They had won 50 games in each of the two previous seasons, and their roster included such talented players as Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Corliss Williamson. Team president Joe Dumars also signed several new players as well as a new coach, Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown. Brown had more than 30 years of coaching experience and had led the Kansas Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA title.
After losingtheir opening night game to the Indiana Pacers, now coached by Brown's predecessor Rick Carlisle, the Pistons won five consecutive games. Following a three-game road losing streak, the Pistons won nine of their next 11 contests. The Pistons followed this by winning 13 consecutive games, tying a club record, only to then endure three- and six-game losing streaks during the following six weeks. Looking for a player who could elevate the Pistons, Dumars acquired All-Star forward Rasheed Wallace on Feb. 19, 2004. He fit in perfectly with the Pistons, who won 20 of their final 26 games to finish with a 58-24 record, second best in the Eastern Conference. They had also set two records by holding teams to less than 70 points in five consecutive games and winning eight consecutive games by at least 15 points.
The Pistons faced the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the 2004 playoffs. They won Game One by 26 points, only to lose the home court advantage when the Bucks won the second game 92-88. The Pistons were losing by 10 points halfway through the second quarter of Game Three in Milwaukee when Tayshaun Prince blocked Toni Kukoc’s breakaway dunk attempt. Prince scored seven consecutive points in the next 90 seconds and led the Pistons to a 95-85 victory. The Pistons took a 3-1 lead after winning Game Four and clinched the series in Game Five on their home court. Prince scored a career playoff-high 24 points in the deciding game and also recorded nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals.
The Pistons then faced the New Jersey Nets, who had swept them in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. In Game One, the Pistons held the Nets to 19 field goals, a franchise low, and won 78-56. They outscored the Nets 61-34 in the second half of Game Two and went on to win 95-80. The Nets took control when the series moved to New Jersey, winning the next two games. With the Pistons trailing by three at home, Chauncey Billups hit a 40-foot three pointer of the glass to send Game Five into overtime. Billups was the only one of the 10 starters who hadn’t fouled out by the end of the third overtime, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Nets from winning 127-120 and taking the series lead. Back in New Jersey for Game Six, reserves Mike James, Lindsey Hunter and Mehmet Okur led the Pistons on a 27-11 second quarter run. The Pistons won 81-75. Back at home for Game Seven, they crushed the Nets 90-69.
For the second consecutive year, the Pistons had advanced to the conference finals. Their opponent this time was the Pacers. Indiana’s Reggie Miller sank a three-pointer late in Game One that sealed the 78-74 Pacer victory. Rasheed Wallace, who knew that his poor shooting performance had contributed to the loss, promised that the second game would be different: “They will not win Game Two. I guarantee it. You can write it.” The Pistons were holding on to a 69-67 lead with less than 30 seconds remaining in Game Two when Miller grabbed a loose ball and dribbled down the court for an easy lay-up. As Miller soared towards the basket, Prince seemingly came out of nowhere and blocked his shot. The Pistons won 72-69. After winning two of the next three games, the Pistons survived Game Six 69-65 and earned their first trip to the Finals since 1990.
The Los Angeles Lakers were heavily favored to defeat the Pistons and claim the championship. And why not? Their starting lineup consisted of four future Hall-of-Famers and they were coached by the legendary Phil Jackson. The Pistons quickly went about dismantling those expectations, defeating the Lakers 87-75 in Game One. In contrast to the Pistons’ team effort, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant scored all but 16 of the Lakers’ points. It was the Lakers’ first home loss in the 2004 postseason and the 18th time in 19 postseason games that the Pistons had held their opponent to less than 100 points.
With a three-point lead near the end of Game Two, the Pistons looked ready to take a nearly insurmountable 2-0 series advantage. Then Bryant sank a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to tie the game. The Lakers dominated in overtime and won 99-91, evening the series. The Pistons responded by crushing the Lakers 88-68 in Game Three at home and then winning Game Four 88-80. A Detroit victory in Game Five would give the Pistons their third title in franchise history and their fans a chance to watch a championship celebration at home for the first time.
The Pistons led 55-45 at halftime in Game Five and ultimately won 100-87, making them the first team to win all three home games in the 2-3-2 format. Billups was named Finals Most Valuable Player, the first time a non-All-Star had won the honor since Dumars in 1989. Brown became the first coach to win championships in both the NCAA and the NBA.