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ON BASKETBALL

Factors add up to an upset

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Can we at least all agree that if the Pistons continue to play the way they're playing, and the Lakers continue to play the way they're playing, the NBA Finals will not extend past tonight's Game 5 at the Palace? That's the easy question.

A harder query: Where would a Pistons title rate among the bigger upsets in NBA Finals history? And why is it happening?

The last non-negotiable upset in the NBA Finals came 29 years ago. That was when the underdog Golden State Warriors swept the Washington Bullets in 1975. Portland's six-game victory over the marquee 76ers of Julius Erving and George McGinnis two years later was an upset of sorts, except that by the time the NBA Finals rolled around, the Blazers were playing so well that it was not all that much of a shocker.

Assuming the Pistons don't collapse -- and we've seen no evidence that they will -- a Detroit victory in any of the next three games would constitute a significant upset. In a way, it would mirror the Trail Blazers' 1977 title because it would be viewed as a championship won by a T-E-A-M over an opponent top-heavy with studs. It would also make the Pistons the first team since 1979 to win a title without an acknowledged first-team All-Star or a top 50 all-time player.

It would, in short, be a great thing for the NBA in particular and basketball in general.

Few gave the Pistons much of a shot when the series started, despite their pleas to be taken seriously. All of us -- yours truly included -- figured the Lakers would deal with the Pistons in the same manner in which they dealt with the Rockets, Spurs, and Timberwolves. The Lakers clearly felt that way as well; after Detroit's win in Game 1, the uniform response from Los Angeles was that they lost because they had not taken the Pistons seriously. After Detroit's win Sunday night, the uniform response was something quite different.

"We haven't played well yet," said Shaquille O'Neal (and this was after he went for 36 points and 20 rebounds). "We haven't showed it yet."

There are more than a few reasons why that is the case.

* Karl Malone's injury: It may not be the reason why the Lakers are on the brink, but it's a huge factor. A healthy, contributing Malone aside O'Neal gives LA a formidable inside game at both ends, especially on defense and on the glass. But with the Mailman coming down with a bad right knee at the worst possible time, the Lakers find themselves with no suitable backup. Hey, these things happen. Think Minnesota wouldn't have wanted a healthy Sam Cassell? Or Sacramento a healthy Chris Webber?

* Scoring: The Pistons are averaging 88 points a game in regulation time in this series. After watching them against New Jersey and Indiana, you wondered whether they'd get 88 points against the Lakers in the entire series. What is happening? Chauncey Billups came out and said it: The Lakers' defense is not as strong as Indiana's and the Lakers are not as athletic as Indiana. The Pistons also are making shots they didn't make in previous rounds and they even are -- gasp -- running on occasion (21 fast-break points in Game 4). They scored 32 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4, which represented a half's work in the previous two series.

* Scoring, Part II: The Lakers are getting nothing out of anyone not named Shaq or Kobe. That has always been a key to their success, to have someone like Derek Fisher, Devean George, Rick Fox, or even Kareem Rush to complement the Big Two. There hasn't been a single Laker other than Kobe Bryant or O'Neal to reach double figures in any of the four games, and the Pistons' defense deserves credit for that. But Kobe also is playing into their hands with ridiculous shooting (12 for 38 in the last two games). You also have to wonder what the Lakers were thinking in the second quarter Sunday night. Shaq was having his way, with 17 points in the first 18 minutes. He did not take another shot for the final six minutes of the half, as the Lakers missed eight of their next nine attempts (four by Kobe) and saw a 3-point lead turn into a 5-point deficit.

* Fouls: You know the Lakers are getting desperate when Phil Jackson starts moaning about the calls. "These guys want an even shake out there on the floor," he said. "My sales job is convincing them to go out there and play a game that they get an even break on the court." The numbers don't lie. The Pistons have a huge edge in free throw attempts (132-78) and the Lakers have been called for 115 fouls over the four games compared to Detroit's 76. "They're aggressive. We're trying to be aggressive," Gary Payton said. "They are getting the calls. We are not getting the calls."

* Rebounds: The absence of Malone hurts LA here, but the Pistons have been relentless, especially on the offensive glass. They're longer, younger, spryer, and healthier. The Pistons have outscored Los Angeles, 27-10, in second-chance points in the last two games while collecting 24 offensive rebounds. Even if the new possession doesn't result in a basket, it results in another opportunity. O'Neal finally emerged as a glass eater on Sunday with 20. No one else on the Lakers had more than 5 -- Bryant had none in 45 minutes -- while the Detroit starting front line had 33 rebounds. The Pistons are a plus-26 in the series.

* Fate: If Detroit prevails, Larry Brown would become the first coach to win both an NCAA and an NBA championship. Detroit would have the reigning champions of both the NBA and WNBA (the Shock), and Detroit majority owner William Davidson would have a title in the NBA and NHL (he also owns the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning). 

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