Veteran reserves like Lindsey Hunter and Darvin Ham also play significant roles in the locker room culture, Hunter speaking from the perspective of a former champion (with the '02 Lakers), Ham from that of a former member of feuding clubs (the 2001-02 Bucks, for one). "We don't let the ragging get too intense because that causes problems," says Ham. "I saw that [in Milwaukee] with Ray Allen and Anthony Mason. It ripped the team apart."
The Pistons' cohesiveness carries over to their defense-first orientation on the court. "We hang our hat on defense," says Ben Wallace, if you can imagine what a hat would look like sitting on top of his fro-back 'fro. Through Sunday, Detroit had held the Lakers to 80.5 points a game, 18.2 below their regular-season average and 10.0 below their average in their first three playoff series. " Detroit is the only team in the league that understands that you can win a championship by focusing on defense for 48 minutes," says Los Angeles backup forward Rick Fox. The credit for establishing that mentality goes to former Pistons coach Rick Carlisle and his defensive specialist, Kevin O'Neill, both of whom went to Detroit in 2001-02. But like an architect challenged to put nifty additions on a well-designed house, Larry Brown made the D even better after he replaced the fired Carlisle at the beginning of this season. Here's how he did it.
?With relentless reinforcement. "Some coaches preach defense but don't follow through on it, because it's a hard message to get out every day," says Ham, who has played for five other teams. "Larry harps on it. It becomes part of the daily sermon."
?With a few twists. Much has been made during the series of Detroit's ability to single-cover both O'Neal (with Ben Wallace or Campbell) and Bryant (with the long-armed, 6'9" Prince), but that is overblown. The Pistons doubled down on O'Neal countless times, though, admittedly, not much during his 36-point outburst on Sunday. And they did an excellent job of "funneling Kobe into little cups and folds in the defense," as L.A. assistant Jim Cleamons put it. Through four games Bryant had hit only 36 of 92 shots (39-1%).
?With an attack that stresses sharing the ball and balancing the floor. "I really believe that if you play unselfishly on offense, it carries over to defense," says Brown. "I've taken away some of our players' ability to score because we're so concerned about [defense]. But in the long run I think it's important." One of Brown's overlooked specialties is the way he has his players in a good position on offense to help set up their transition D. "To get back balanced is the best way to stop runouts," he says. The Lakers had just five fast-break points on Sunday; the Pistons, not exactly a track team, had 21. Stopping the break also achieves one of Brown's other defensive goals: Keep teams from dribble-penetrating so they don't get to the foul line. In the first four games the Pistons shot 69-2% more free throws (132-78) than L.A.
?With his guards shouldering more responsibility. Just as Brown hounds Billups and Hamilton about moving the ball on offense, so does he ask them to extend themselves on defense, at times having them hawk the ball for 94 feet. Still, Billups never appears tired at the end of the game, his trademark smirk in place, and Hamilton, able to run two hours nonstop on an inclined treadmill, considers himself the best-conditioned athlete in the league.
?With athleticism near the basket. Ben Wallace, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, may be the best in the NBA at jumping out to thwart a pick-and-roll on the perimeter then recovering to check his man in the paint. And second best at that difficult art is Rasheed. "A lot of guys do it when they're asked to," says Ben, "which means they could do it all the time. They just don't want to." The fact that a career 6.1-points-per-game scorer who shoots 41.7% from the foul line is Detroit's most popular player—Eminem sported Ben's number 3 jersey at Game 3—speaks to the importance the Pistons place on defense and Ben's primacy within that hard-nosed system.
Eight months ago the best guess was that in late June we would be hearing the soulful sentiments of Karl Malone or Gary Payton, victors at last, or perhaps the giddy giggling of Shaq, who always brings his A game, on and off the court, to the Finals. "Buddy," he said when he was asked why he didn't get more scoring opportunities in Game 1, "story of my life." But the Lakers, suddenly and atypically, were pushed to the side of the stage by a disrespected band of hustlers from Detroit. To hear the Pistons tell it, no one gave them a chance to score a point in the championship series, let alone win a game. They are exaggerating, of course, but there is little doubt that a whole lot of cats underestimated them.