The 2004 NBA Finals was the championship round of the 2003–04 National Basketball Association season. The Finals were between the Los Angeles Lakers of the Western Conference and the Detroit Pistons of the Eastern Conference; the Lakers held home court advantage. The series was played under a best-of-seven format, so the first team to collect four game victories would win the series.
Although the Lakers were the heavy favorite, the Pistons won the series four games to one to win their first title since 1990 and their fifth overall (three NBA Championships, two NBL Championships). Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups was named as the NBA Finals MVP. The series was noted for the perceived underdog, the Pistons, dominating a Lakers team that had four future Hall of Famers.
Pistons owner William Davidson became the first owner in sports history to win two championships in one year. Eight days earlier, the other team that Davidson owned, the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League had won the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Calgary Flames.
The Lakers had won consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, but lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs in 2003 to end their streak at three.
In the 2003 offseason, the Lakers made major changes, with initially varying results. Needing to find a point guard and a power forward to defend against Tim Duncan and the Spurs, the Lakers signed veteran stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone for well below market value; they also hoped to give both veterans their first championship ring. The Lakers were afterwards considered the favorites to win the NBA title.
During the regular season, after starting the season 18–3, the Lakers were afflicted by numerous injuries and stumbled to a 56–26 record to finish the season with the second seed in the Western Conference.
The Lakers breezed past their first-round opponent, the Houston Rockets, headlining a matchup between Shaquille O'Neal and a young Yao Ming, defeating the squad 4-1 but then lost the first two games in their series against the Spurs before a dramatic comeback that saw them win 4–2. Then, they faced the Minnesota Timberwolves and their superstar forward Kevin Garnett. The Lakers won the series 4–2 to advance to the Finals.
The Pistons won two back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, but with retirements and departures of several stars, they faded from playoff prominence. The team hired former star Joe Dumars as general manager of the team in 2000, and he began stockpiling draft picks and trading players. He landed defensive stalwart Ben Wallace and guard Richard Hamilton by trading established stars in controversial trades, signed Chauncey Billups (considered an underachiever), and drafted Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick in the 2002 Draft. He was named the NBA Executive of the Year in 2003 for returning the Pistons to prominence.
The Pistons made a major change as well, but perhaps a riskier change, firing head coach Rick Carlisle, who had led the Pistons to two consecutive Central Division titles and had received the NBA Coach of the Year Award in 2002. In his place, Dumars hired legendary coach Larry Brown, who had most recently led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001.
In a three-team trade involving the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks at the trade deadline, Dumars traded Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, Bobby Sura, Željko Rebrača and other considerations for guard Mike James and forward Rasheed Wallace, who proved to be the final pieces of the championship team (Hunter would rejoin the Pistons a week later after being waived by the Celtics). The Pistons, who were already a good defensive team, became a defensive force to be reckoned with. They became the first team in NBA history to hold five consecutive opponents under 70 points, and finished the season with a 54–28 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons easily overcame the Milwaukee Bucks 4–1, but struggled against the New Jersey Nets and narrowly escaped 4–3. In a defensive series with Indiana, the Pistons offense proved more productive and they won 4–2 to advance to the NBA Finals.
The teams split the two meetings, each won by the home team:
Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame‡
The Finals were played using a 2–3–2 site format, where the first two and last two games are held at the team with home court advantage. This is only used in the Finals; all other playoff games are held in a 2–2–1–1–1 format (the team with home court advantage starts).
The Pistons became the fourth team to sweep the middle three games since the NBA started using the 2-3-2 format in 1985. But they became the first to do so at home; the previous three times this had occurred it was done by road teams (1990 Pistons, 1991 Chicago Bulls, 2001 Lakers). With this, Detroit became the only team to have both swept the middle three games at home and on the road.
This was the first Finals series to be played on the current Sunday–Tuesday–Thursday rotation since 1990, the last year CBS had the NBA's national television contract. NBA on NBC switched to a Wednesday-Friday-Sunday rotation in 1991, which was used through 2003, save for Monday games in 1999 and 2000. It is also the last series to have Game 1 be played on a Sunday. From 2005 to 2010, the championship series started on either the first or second Thursday in June.
The NBA heavily publicized the series as it has done with all other NBA Finals series. There was a sentiment among fans that the Pistons were the clear underdogs, and many described the series as a David vs. Goliath match-up. The Lakers had a lineup of Stars such as Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal—their offensive capability was expected to overpower Detroit's defensive-based game plan.
Payton and Malone also added to the publicity of the Finals. Perennial All-Stars who had both previously reached the Finals, Payton had led the Seattle SuperSonics there in 1996, while Malone had led the Utah Jazz there in 1997 and 1998. However, the Chicago Bulls denied them championship rings a total of three times. By the time of Jordan's second retirement in 1998, the two veterans were aged and failed to lead their teams deep into the playoffs. It would be Malone's final chance to win a championship, as he would retire before the subsequent season.All times are in Eastern Daylight Time (UTC−4)
Considered to be a stunning upset by most of the NBA world, the Detroit Pistons managed to defeat the Lakers with imposing defense. Defensively clamping down on everyone but Bryant and O'Neal, the Pistons managed to hold everyone else to a total of 16 points.
The Pistons trailed the Lakers 41–40 at halftime, but by the fourth quarter the Pistons had opened up a 13-point lead; they would not trail for the rest of the game.
The second game wasn't close throughout the first half, but in the third quarter the Pistons scored 30 points, cutting the deficit 68–66. Detroit led by three points with 10.9 seconds remaining in the final period. Coach Brown wanted to foul a Lakers player where they could get only 2 points rather than 3. However, the Pistons' veterans only wanted to intentionally foul O'Neal. Kobe Bryant's 3-point shot with 2.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter would force overtime, where the Pistons would make only one two-point field goal (compared to Los Angeles scoring ten points). Afterwards, on the team bus back to the airport, Billups told the Pistons' players and coaches, "We're not coming back to L.A."
The Pistons beat Los Angeles by 20 in their first NBA Finals appearance together at The Palace of Auburn Hills since 1989 to take a 2–1 lead in the series. The 68 points scored by the Lakers set a franchise record for the lowest number of points scored in a playoff game.
Again, the Pistons defeated the Lakers, although this time by eight, to take a 3–1 series advantage.
O'Neal scored 36 for the Lakers and Bryant scored 20 but shot 32 percent from the field.
Malone would play his last game, as a knee injury would not allow him to dress in Game Five.
In Game 5, the Pistons won their first championship since 1990, and Larry Brown finally won a professional title. The Pistons defense had overcome the high-scoring Laker offense, winning the game by 13, winning the series 4-1, and also ending a long Laker dynasty that lasted for many years. The game saw the end of Phil Jackson's first run as the coach (he returned in the 2005-06 season), and saw O'Neal, Payton, and Malone's last games in Laker uniforms.Detroit Pistons
Los Angeles Lakers
The Pistons made the Finals again in 2005, losing to the Spurs in a tough seven-game series. That season, the Pistons won 54 games and defeated the Philadelphia 76ers (5 games), Indiana Pacers (6 games) and Miami Heat (7 games) on their way back to the finals. However the Spurs, who likewise play a defensive style, would defeat them in a tough Game 7. The Pistons would continue their run of Eastern Conference superiority for 3 more years, losing in the Conference Finals each time. After a loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2007-08 season, management would finally break up the core of the team and enter a period of dormancy.
The Lakers' collapse became apparent in the days following the Finals. Head coach Phil Jackson abruptly resigned as head coach. Shaquille O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, then Gary Payton was also traded and Karl Malone was left unsigned, then retired. The 2004-05 NBA season was a tough one for the Lakers, winning only 34 games and missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in the team's history. Jackson returned to the Lakers in the offseason; despite writing a book called The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, in which he voiced disdain for Kobe Bryant by calling him 'uncoachable', he and Bryant would bury the hatchet once the season began. Jackson and Bryant would later produce three more NBA Finals appearances and two more NBA championships in six seasons before Jackson retired at the conclusion of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Meanwhile, O'Neal, along with Payton and Dwyane Wade of the Heat, won the 2006 championship.
The Pistons' win was the 21st championship among the four professional sports teams in Detroit (NFL's Lions, MLB's Tigers and NHL's Red Wings). The Red Wings made it 22 upon winning the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals.