The Pistons underwent a complete roster re-haul in the ’90s after winning the 1990 NBA Finals. The team attempted to rebuild around young All-Star Grant Hill, but the forward left in free agency in 2000. In a sign-and-trade with the Orlando Magic, Detroit acquired Ben Wallace, a center who would go on to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 and 2003. New GM Joe Dumars continued to build a defense-oriented roster, and the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals again in 2003–swept by New Jersey despite being the number one seed. In 2004, the Pistons won 54 games, good enough for the number two seed. After a five-game victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit earned revenge over the New Jersey Nets in a classic seven-game series (featuring a game-tying three from point guard Chauncey Billups in a 3OT game five). With a six-game series victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Pistons reached their first NBA Finals since 1990.
After losing in the playoffs to the Spurs in 2003, the Lakers looked to revamp their roster at the point guard and power forward positions. Los Angeles signed perennial All-Stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone to fill these spots and emerged as a favorite to win the title. Despite suffering injuries to multiple key players, the Lakers managed to win 56 games and the division title (helped by two clutch shots to tie and win the final game of the regular season by Kobe Bryant). In the playoffs, Los Angeles easily defeated the Houston Rockets in five games, then met the San Antonio Spurs again in the conference semifinals. After falling behind 2-0, the Lakers won four straight (thanks to a game-winner with 0.4 seconds left in game five by Derek Fisher), and in the Western Conference Finals they defeated an upstart Minnesota Timberwolves led by MVP Kevin Garnett in six games to reach the NBA Finals again, featured as heavy favorites over the Pistons.
Detroit started a back court comprised of newcomer point guard Chauncey Billups and former Washington Wizard Richard Hamilton at shooting guard. Young, lanky small forward Tayshaun Prince started next to All-Star power forward Rasheed Wallace–a player the Pistons acquired just before the trade deadline–and two-time DPOY Ben Wallace at center.
The Pistons’ bench consisted of former Laker Lindsey Hunter as the backup at both guard spots, former Sixth Man of the Year Corliss Williamson as the backup forward, and another former Laker Elden Campbell as the backup in the post. Mehmet Okur served as a rotational big man for depth behind Campbell, and Mike James, Darvin Ham, and rookie Darko Milicic rarely played in the NBA Finals.
Former SuperSonic Gary Payton started for the Lakers at point guard alongside superstar shooting guard Kobe Bryant. New starter Devean George was the small forward in the front court alongside former Jazz power forward Karl Malone and three-time NBA Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal at center.
Fan favorite Derek Fisher backed up Payton at point guard, and youngster Kareem Rush served as the primary backup on the wing for Bryant and George. Another youngster Luke Walton provided depth at both forward spots, and Stanislav Medvedenko served as the third big man off the bench. Veteran Rick Fox played sparingly in the NBA Finals, as did Brian Cook and Bryon Russell.
Game One : Pistons 87, Lakers 75
The elite Pistons’ defense was on full display as they held all Lakers other than Kobe and Shaq to a mere 16 points. They trailed by a single point at halftime but steadily built a lead that peaked at 13 at the start of the fourth off a three from Hunter. Detroit led the rest of the way and shocked the basketball world with a surprising victory in game one. Billups led the way with 22 points, and the rest of the Pistons’ starters combined for 46 points. Shaq and Kobe led the Lakers with 34 points and 25 points respectively, but no other Los Angeles player was a factor as they now lost home court advantage in the series.
Game Two: Pistons 91, Lakers 99 (OT)
The Lakers were well on their way to tying the series when they led by double digits in the second half, but the Pistons stormed back late in the third to tie and eventually take the lead. Trailing by six with under a minute left, Kobe missed a three that was corralled by Shaq. Converting the lay-up, Shaq made it a one possession game by sinking the huge free throw. Los Angeles made a defensive stop on the other end, and Kobe hit a clutch three with Richard Hamilton all over him to tie the game and send it to overtime. In the extra period, the Lakers held the Pistons to two points, and Shaq scored six of the Lakers’ ten points to finish with 29 points. Kobe led all scorers with 33 points, and Luke Walton contributed an unexpected 7 points and 8 assists off the bench. Billups and Hamilton combined for 53 points, and Wallace delivered a 12/14 double-double, but the series was now tied heading back to Detroit.
Game Three: Lakers 68, Pistons 88
Back home in the Palace at Auburn Hills, the Pistons’ defense absolutely suffocated the Lakers in game three, holding them to a franchise-low 68 points. This was the 17th time during the season that Detroit held an opponent to under 70 points, and their efforts gave them a 2-1 series lead with two home games remaining. Hamilton scored a game-high 31 points to go along with Billups’ 19. Shaq was the Lakers’ leading scorer with 14 points, and Kobe struggled mightily on 4/13 shooting for 11 points.
Game Four: Lakers 80, Pistons 88
Desperate to tie up the series, the Lakers led after the first quarter, but the Pistons refused to fold. After a scuffle with Medvedenko in the third, Rasheed Wallace came alive to lead Detroit offensively in the second half. Shaq was dominant with 36 points and 20 rebounds, but Kobe conceivably shot the Lakers out of the game with only 20 points on 32% shooting. Wallace finished with a 26/13 double-double, and Billups and Hamilton combined for 40 points in the victory. The Pistons now held a commanding 3-1 series lead with a chance to clinch the championship at home in game five. To make matters worse for Los Angeles, a knee injury would prevent Karl Malone from suiting up again in the series.
Game Five: Lakers 87, Pistons 100
The Lakers jumped out to an early lead, but the Pistons proved to be too much to handle. Erasing the deficit, Detroit spurted a 7-0 run after Shaq was saddled by foul trouble and did not look back, winning game five by 13 in a contest that was not even close. All Pistons’ starters finished in double digits, led by Ben Wallace’s monster 22 rebounds and Hamilton’s team-high 21 points. Kobe again struggled from the field on 7/21 shooting for 24 points, and Shaq finished with a tame 20/8. For his consistent play, Chauncey Billups was awarded the Finals MVP as the Pistons clinched the franchise’s third championship at home.
Their win in the 2004 NBA Finals earned Detroit its first title since 1990, and the team proved that it would contend for several years to come. Returning the same starting lineup in the 2004-05 season, the Pistons again won their division with 54 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for a third straight year. After a hard-fought seven-game series, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals for the second straight season.
After their defeat in the Finals, the animosity between Kobe and Shaq had reached an all-time high. Electing to build around the younger Bryant, the Lakers traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a first round pick. Los Angeles struggled in 2005 and wound up in the lottery. They would rebound in 2008, however, after trading for Pau Gasol and made it to the NBA Finals again.