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History awaits

Pistons poised for biggest upset in almost 30 years

Posted: Monday June 14, 2004 3:03PM; Updated: Monday June 14, 2004 4:53PM
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Rasheed Wallace; Kobe Bryant
Ben Wallace and Detroit have been a step ahead of L.A. for most of the Finals, grabbing almost six more boards a game.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

DETROIT -- Are the Pistons on the verge of the biggest NBA Finals upset in 30 years? No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, the situation the Lakers face heading into Tuesday's Game 5 at Detroit. If the Pistons can hold on, they would win their first NBA crown in 14 years. They also would make a strong case that their victory is the biggest upset since 1975. The '75 Warriors, the '77 Trail Blazers, the '91 Bulls and the '95 Rockets make up the short list of teams generally considered upset champs over the past 30 years. One could argue, however, that none was as overlooked going into the Finals as this year's Pistons.

Let's start with the '95 Rockets. While they won just 47 games during the regular season, they had Hakeem Olajuwon and were the defending NBA champs. Even against a Magic team that had 57 regular-season wins and featured Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, the Rockets' four-game sweep was not exactly shocking. The '77 Trail Blazers? Yes, they surprised most of the experts by beating Dr. J's Sixers 4 games to 2. But Portland had Bill Walton in his prime, and the series was closely contested. Some viewed the '91 Bulls as underdogs against a veteran Lakers team led by Magic Johnson and James Worthy, but Chicago had done enough during the season to make its resounding five-game victory somewhat expected. Plus, the Bulls had Michael Jordan.

Of all the upset teams, perhaps the only one that comes closest to the Pistons would be the '75 Warriors. Few gave upstart Golden State, led by high-scoring Rick Barry, much of a chance against a Washington Bullets team featuring Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. But Barry and Clifford Ray led a dominating 4-0 series sweep.

Detroit entered this year's Finals as a decided underdog to the Lakers, a team featuring four future Hall of Famers in Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. With three NBA championships in four years, L.A. was viewed as vastly more experienced. Though Detroit boasted an excellent defense, the Pistons had trouble scoring points all season. Taking into account the expectations (many pundits predicted a Lakers sweep) and the results (the Pistons' only loss so far has come as a result of a Bryant miracle 3-pointer), it's hard to argue with the assertion that a Detroit victory in Game 5 would cap the biggest Finals upset since '75. As Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said, "We felt we had a chance to win this series, but nobody else felt that. We knew we were the only ones who believed in us."

Marty Burns covers pro basketball for SI.com.