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Updated: Friday, June 11, 2004 1:13 AM EDT
NBA RECAP
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Detroit 88, La Lakers 68
Lakers
Pistons

AUBURN HILLS, Michigan (Ticker) -- After taking an untimely brief break at the end of Game Two, the defense of the Detroit Pistons returned with a record-setting vengeance.

With a smothering effort that shut down both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant , the Pistons shook off a loss and shackled the Los Angeles Lakers , 88-68, moving closer to an improbable NBA championship.

After Detroit's Game One win, coach Larry Brown said he didn't think his team could defend better. Back on their home court in front of a manic crowd, the Pistons proved him wrong as they stymied O'Neal and Bryant, the superstars who had combined for better than 60 points per game.

"This is as good as we can play," said Brown, correcting himself.

O'Neal, who never had been held below 25 points in 21 career Finals games, was limited to 14 on 7-of-14 shooting and missed his only two free throws as he was harassed by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace and hampered by foul trouble.

"We were decent," Wallace said in the understatement of the season. "I think there are still areas where we need to get better."

"I took 14 shots," a defiant O'Neal said. "I think that's the first time in 10 years I only went to the line once. I thought I was getting bumped, but maybe not."

Bryant, whose game-tying 3-pointer in Game Two is the only thing keeping the Lakers in this series, did not make a shot in the first half as he looked confused and distracted on both ends of the floor. Shadowed by 6-9 albatross Tayshaun Prince , he scored 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting, including 0-of-4 from the arc.

"I just try to use my length," said Prince, who has an 84-inch wingspan. "For the most part, he's quick. (I'm) just trying to use my length and stay in front of him. The times that you let him get one step past you, that's the time that he scores."

"For the most part, tonight I was attacking 30 feet from the basket," said Bryant, who had four turnovers.

With the rest of the roster providing what it usually does - next to nothing - the Lakers were held to a franchise postseason in low in points in the 50 years of the shot clock era, a span of a staggering 561 games.

"That is an incredible accomplishment," Brown said. "I'll tell them that."

As ineffective as O'Neal and Bryant were, they again were the only players in double figures for Los Angeles, which never led and trailed by double digits for the final 20 minutes; shot 36.5 percent (27-of-74) from the field, including 6-of-27 from the arc; and attempted just 13 free throws.

The Pistons also pushed around the Lakers, muscling to a 51-39 advantage on the boards and 16-3 in second-chance points. Coach Phil Jackson became so frustrated in the third quarter that he benched every starter except Bryant.

"At halftime, I told the team, I don't think we can play any worse than we played in the first half as far as shooting the ball and executing in the open floor," Jackson said. "But we tried hard in the second half to duplicate it."

Richard Hamilton finally got loose and scored 31 points and Laker-killer Chauncey Billups added 19 for the Pistons, who grabbed a 2-1 series lead that seems much bigger. Were it not for Brown's decision not to foul Bryant at the end of Game Two, Detroit would be on the precipice of the biggest upset in NBA Finals history.

"We came in yesterday and watched the film (from Game Two) and let it go," said Billups, who continues to abuse Gary Payton in their point guard matchup. "We came in and just let it go."

Game Four is right back here on Sunday. The Lakers are 0-7 in Finals when trailing 2-1 and could be without Karl Malone . The future Hall of Fame forward was clearly hobbled by his sprained MCL and totally ineffective, scoring five points in 18 minutes.

Hosting the Finals for the first time in 14 years, the Pistons were rather rude, scoring the first eight points as the Lakers missed their first five shots. That set the tone as Detroit was quicker, stronger and hungrier.

"That was something we needed," Rasheed Wallace said. "That was pure adrenaline right there."

The Pistons led, 24-16, after one period, even though Rasheed Wallace made his customary two-foul early exit. They pushed the lead to 13 points early in the second period as Bryant remained remarkably silent, thanks to Prince.

"You can't guard better than Tayshaun guarded," Brown said.

The Lakers trailed, 39-32, at halftime and it could have been a lot worse as the Pistons missed countless easy shots and six free throws. But all the signs of a blowout were there.

"They (have) shot almost 2-to-1 in free throws in this series ... and that a lot of times is a sign of the aggressor, the team that's most aggressive in basketball. And we're the reactors," Jackson said.

For the third time in as many games, the Pistons dominated the third quarter, usually a trademark of the Lakers. Billups scored eight points in the first four minutes, and when Prince put home a follow dunk, it was 54-40, and the Lakers had no fight.

Bryant finally broke through with a jumper at the 7:35 mark, but it was too late. Hamilton scored 15 points in the final 16 minutes, touching off a party at The Palace.


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