Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Detroit shows drive in finals against the LA Lakers' fab four

AP , AUBURN HILLS, MICHIGAN

Leave it to Rasheed Wallace to define the Detroit Pistons' unquenchable drive in terms that perhaps only he can understand.

"It's just natural, I guess," the colorful forward said Friday. "I can't explain why we're hungry. We are. Just some dog-faced criminals out there, getting down on all fours, ready to scrap."

In `Sheedspeak, that pretty much sums up the Pistons' surprising performance in the first three games of the NBA Finals. Detroit's hardworking cast has roundly outplayed the Los Angeles Lakers' superstars while taking a 2-1 lead into Game 4 at The Palace today.

From Ben Wallace's selfless defense on Shaquille O'Neal to Chauncey Billups' impressive work as their floor general, the Pistons genuinely seem uninterested in individual accolades or stardom.

And that's unprecedented for an NBA championship team of the modern era driven by television ratings and commissioner David Stern's starmaking machinery.

Not since the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics has a champion featured no transcendent stars or surefire Hall of Famers on its roster. Richard Hamilton might soon ascend to that stratosphere with his impressive postseason performance, but he's not there yet.

Unless you ask his coach.

"Don't tell my players that they're not superstars," Larry Brown said. "But teams win championships. Even the superstars figure out a way to be part of teams."

And that's the critical difference between Detroit and Los Angeles in these surprising NBA Finals: The Pistons genuinely don't seem to care who leads them to victory, while O'Neal and Kobe Bryant seem determined to shove each other out of the way.

The best measures of the Pistons' dominance are the squabbles emanating from the Lakers, who normally acquire their coach's Zen cool during the finals -- particularly O'Neal and Bryant, who led the Lakers to three consecutive championships.

There's nothing cool about the Lakers now, beyond Bryant's superfluous sunglasses in the Michigan drizzle after Friday's practice. The superstars have found the latest in an endless line of disagreements: O'Neal wants more touches and more free throws, believing the Lakers must ride their big man to another title.

"It gets very frustrating sometimes," O'Neal said. "I've always said that if a team is going to play me single coverage, we've got to make them pay. And we haven't made this team pay yet."

Bryant begs to differ.

"We're not worried about getting him more touches," Bryant said. "We're worried about winning the game and getting everybody better looks."

So the Lakers don't know why they're looking so bad in this series, but they might be getting a bit frantic wondering how to fix it. And everybody knows the Lakers love a good squabble, from Bryant's disagreements with coach Phil Jackson to Shaq's open feud with Kobe for much of the 2001 championship run.

O'Neal had the lowest-scoring performance of his five NBA Finals in Game 3, managing just 14 points as the Lakers were held to their lowest postseason points total in franchise history. Though Shaq doesn't hit the offensive boards as hard as he used to, the Lakers also aren't ``feeding the dog,'' as the helpful fans behind their bench back in Los Angeles often shout.

O'Neal isn't the only one baffled by the Lakers' reluctance to turn to a player with a career finals average of nearly 34 points -- second in NBA history behind Rick Barry's 36.3.

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