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On This Date in Sports June 15, 2004: The Lakers Fall Apart

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The Detroit Pistons stun the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA Championship in five games, winning the finale 100-87 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Lakers seeking their fourth title in five years were heavily favored to win. However, the partnership of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fractured leading to the Pistons winning the final three games to win the series.

As the Los Angeles Lakers began the 2003/04 season, they were expected to regain their crown as they added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to an already strong team. Malone who played two decades with the Utah Jazz, made no secret he was ring shopping, as Payton was trying to give the Lakers a needed playmaker. The Lakers had the third best record in the West at 56-26. The Lakers beat the Houston Rockets with easy the first round 4-1. Next, they dethroned the San Antonio Spurs in six and then beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in six.

The Detroit Pistons were a surprise in the East. After posting a record of 54-28 under Larry Brown, his first season in the Motor City. A big part of the Pistons playoff run was Rasheed Wallace, whom they acquired at the trade deadline. In the first round, the Pistons showed no fear taking out the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Next up was the two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets who bounced Detroit in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. It would be a back and forth series as the Nets won Game 5 in Detroit 127-120 in three overtimes to take a 3-2 series lead. The Pistons would bounce back and took Game 6 in the Meadowlands and won the series in seven games. The Pistons would go on to beat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games.

In the NBA Finals for the first time since 1990, the Pistons were a considerable underdog against the Los Angeles Lakers. However, using a strong defense the Pistons took the opener at the Staples Center 87-75 despite a game-high 34 points from Shaquille O’Neal. The Pistons defense was strong again in Game 2, but the Lakers managed to win 99-91, as Kobe Bryant had 33 to lead all scorers.

As the series shifted to the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Lakers got the full effect of Detroit Basketball, as Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace each proved to be an imposing force in the paint as the Lakers had a record low 68 points, losing 88-68. By now frustration was setting in. Shaq was still the star, but it was clear he was starting to lose a step. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant was no longer content to be the second option as he entered his prime was sick of being in the Deisel’s shadow and was not afraid to let anyone know. Shaq did his part in Game 4, scoring 36 points with 20 rebounds. While Kobe Bryant struggled from the field as the Lakers went down again 88-80. With Karl Malone sitting with a knee injury the Lakers looked to get the series back to LA for Game 5. Instead, the fractured Lakers locker began to manifest itself on the court. Once again, the Lakers offense faltered as the Pistons won 100-87 to take the series.

In 20 years of the best of seven finals having the 2-3-2 format, it was the first time the home team won the middle three games. Chauncy Billups would win the NBA Finals MVP, as the Lakers split up after the season as Phil Jackson took a one-year debacle, while Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat. Shaq would win a title in 2006 with the Heat. The Lakers meanwhile retooled and returned to the NBA Finals in 2008. They would go onto win back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.