You normally don’t think of a team that enters the postseason as a #2 seed in its bracket as a real dark horse. But in the NBA, when you lack a marquee superstar and have to follow a path that leads you through the two-time defending conference champions and two series without homecourt advantage, a dark horse is exactly what you are. That’s the path the 2004 Detroit Pistons rode to a championship.
Detroit had a good backcourt, with the twentysomething versions of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton combining to average 35 ppg. Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince were solid at the forward spots, while big Ben Wallace hauled down 12 rebounds a game on the interior.
The Pistons were coached by Larry Brown, who had a championship pedigree at the college level, the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks, and had more recently taken Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals.
The Pistons won 54 games, and then ousted the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2004 NBA playoffs. The New Jersey Nets were a tougher out—Jason Kidd’s team had won the East in each of the previous two seasons and took a 3-2 series lead on Detroit.
It was here that the great Piston ride really began.
Detroit went to the Meadowlands for Game 6 with their season on the line, and used the combination of Wallace and their defense to win. The defense forced Kidd into 4/11 shooting and with Wallace cleaning up misses to the tune of twenty rebounds, Detroit won 81-75.
When the series returned to Motown, the defense was in even stronger lockdown mode—Kidd was held to 0-for-8 shooting, while Billups and Hamilton combined for 43 points in a 90-69 route that sent the Pistons to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Indiana Pacers were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and led by three-point shooting legend Reggie Miller, with Jermaine O’Neal being a strong force down low, one the Pacers could use to counter Wallace. That’s exactly what happened in Game 1—while Wallace was a beast with 22 boards, O’Neal had a 21 points/14 rebounds night and Indiana won 78-74.
Detroit did what it had to do though in Game 2, using a 23 points from Hamilton to win a 72-67 battle. Hamilton, along with Wallace, each had 20 points back home for Game 3 in an 85-78 win that saw Miller take just four shots and make only one.
The Pistons gave back homecourt advantage in Game 4 though, with a complete non-offensive showing, even by the defensive standards being set in these playoffs. They fell behind by 12 points early and lost 83-68.
Normally when a series unfolds like this, it’s time for the favorite to assert themselves and close it out. Hamilton was the answer to that for Detroit. He went into Indy and knocked down 33 points of 12/22 shooting, as the Pistons delivered a shocking 83-65 rout. Hamilton hit for 21 more in a 69-65 win that sealed the Eastern title in Game 6.
The defining dynasty of the early ‘00s was the final step in the process for Detroit. The Los Angeles Lakers, at 56-26, won the West. The Lakers were not just Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but had added Karl Malone. The “Mailman” after being rebuffed on his title pushes in Utah by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, was hoping to ride the backs of Shaq and Kobe to get a ring.
It was the ultimate contrast in matchups. You had the Pistons, with no real star, against the Lakers, who were stacked with them. The contrasting cultures of Detroit and Los Angeles as cities fit the narrative perfectly, and on top of all that it was a rematch of the 1988 NBA Finals, one of the best ever played.
Just as they had in 1988, Detroit went into Los Angeles and stole Game 1, getting 22 points from Billups in an 87-75 win. While Shaq was dominant down low and Kobe got his points, the Piston defense still forced Bryant into a 10/27 shooting, and Malone was a non-factor. Los Angeles grabbed Game 2, 99-91, but the Pistons were still where they needed to be for the series middle three games back in Detroit.
Detroit’s defense locked in for Game 3, an easy 88-68 rout, and they continued to frustrate Bryant’s shooting in Game 4, going to the third quarter in a tie game. Wallace would finish Game 4 with 26 points/13 rebounds, while Billups knocked down 23 and the Pistons pulled away.
Even with a 3-1 series lead, the Pistons still had to fear returning to Los Angeles for the last two games if Detroit didn’t close it out in Game 5. No one in Motown needed a reminder that in ’88, the Lakers won Games 6 & 7 at home.
The Pistons made sure that wasn’t even a possibility. All five starters scored in double figures for Game 5, with Wallace cleaning up for 22 rebounds. The team led by 22 points after three quarters and coasted home to a 100-87 win that sealed their first championship since the back-to-back run of 1989 and 1990.
Brown had become the first—and thus far only—coach to win both the NCAA Tournament and the NBA Finals. Billups was named Finals MVP, but this was truly a team effort. Hamilton had been the de facto MVP of the conference finals, and Wallace’s rebounding was indispensable throughout the postseason run. The unlikely ride of the 2004 Detroit Pistons had ended with a big celebration for the home fans.