- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Detroit Pistons didn't crumble when they lost that crushing Game 5 at home to New Jersey in triple overtime, which stands as a big reason why it's tough to imagine them collapsing now.
The other reason?
It's even tougher to picture the Lakers summoning the unity and spirit that will be required to stage a never-before-seen comeback.
While others are getting ready to label these '04 Finals as one of the greatest upsets in league history, you can skip that tripe and confidently say that the NBA is on the verge of crowning a most fitting champion.
Because this, remember, is the Year Of The Team. Which would make the Pistons ideal champs.
It's a League O' Stars, as you know, as confirmed by the fact that there hasn't been a title team that didn't include at least one Hall of Fame name since the Seattle SuperSonics of 1979.
This season, though, was a strange one. Ensemble teams were the rage, to a degree that the playoffs didn't have room for them all. Miami, Memphis, Milwaukee, Denver and Utah all ranked as overachievers, none operating with more than one All-Star and most of them trotting out zero. Detroit bucked common sense and carried the trend into the playoffs, even though stars have dominated the Finals for the past 25 years.
I honestly thought San Antonio was the only team from the ensemble set that had a real chance to overcome the Star Factor, but that's largely because I see Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as budding stars ... and because, frankly, I underestimated just how deep and stingy the Pistons are. Detroit's only Hall of Famers are Larry Brown and Joe Dumars, but its defense is truly sick. The Pistons are deeper and stingier than the Spurs.
Which means we could be looking at a new trend. Unless the splintering Lakers prove capable of the most dramatic resurrection the Finals have ever witnessed.
"We might be a team," said Detroit's Darvin Ham, "that shakes up the formula."
Don't be silly, though.
Don't think that Dumars, the architect of these Pistons, is anti-star. For the long term, he'd much rather have stars than not have them, because this might also be a one-season blip.
"If I could make a deal to get four Hall of Famers," Dumars admits, "I'm going to get them."
Ditto Brown, who wasn't in a real rush to join this debate.
"Don't tell my players they aren't superstars," he said.
Of course, Dumars also rejects the notion that what we're seeing is any kind of upset.
Sayeth Joe D: "To say you can catch some team by surprise in the NBA Finals is a little amusing to me."
In spite of all of the praise above, we still must take issue with Chauncey Billups, who's upset because "all year long they called us the Junior Varsity conference."
Note to Chauncey: The operative word there is conference.
Detroit winning the championship wouldn't mean that the East Is Back. It would mean that the Pistons are back, and no one ever called them a JV team anyway.
It's the other 12 teams -- apart from Detroit, Indiana and New Jersey -- that earned the East that label.
Assuming the Pistons hold on for the last victory they need, where do you think their stiffest competition will come from next season? East or West?
Once we got past that never-ending first round, the playoffs have been fabulous. Taut matchups, fantastic finishes, beaucoup surprises. Just how we like it.
Yet I didn't get what I really wanted, unrealistic as the wish was. My plea for a mostly injury-free playoffs, after injuries ravaged the regular season, didn't come close to being heeded.
Sacramento lost Bobby Jackson and lost to Minnesota. The Wolves lost Sam Cassell and lost to the Lakers. The Lakers have lost Karl Malone and have come unglued, in part because Mailman is L.A.'s No. 1 referee in the ongoing Shaq-and-Kobe struggle. It's a lot to expect Malone to keep the team unified when he's trying to get his right knee working.
Which brings us to one of the deciding factors in the Finals so far, that being the recovery powers of youth.
'Sheed really isn't that young any more, at 29, but Malone is 11 years older. The difference is notable because you haven't heard much lately about 'Sheed's plantar fasciitis, an injury that dominated discussion during the conference finals.
Dumars remains optimistic that the Pistons will be able to re-sign 'Sheed, for one simple reason.
"If we win this thing," Dumars said, "I don't know what more we can do."
Although re-signing Wallace almost certainly means that Mehmet Okur will be signing elsewhere, and that's OK. The Pistons have to start playing Darko next season and it'll be easier to find him minutes if Okur is in Phoenix or Denver or somewhere else.
More than one team out there considers Utah's Aleksandar Pavlovic to be the most surprising name to be exposed to Charlotte in the expansion draft, since Pavlovic was a first-round pick in last June's draft.
The name that made me double-take is Chucky Atkins.
Had the Celtics been unwilling to take Atkins at the trade deadline in February, the three-way deal that landed 'Sheed in Detroit doesn't happen.
Dumars had been trying since last summer to acquire a second Wallace to line up alongside Ben Wallace. "You can call (Portland GM) John Nash and ask him," Dumars said with a laugh.
Why such deep longings for such a controversial figure? "I played against him," Dumars said. "I know Rasheed."
And now the guy who made it all possible -- the point guard Danny Ainge had to have -- can be plucked by the Bobcats for nothing.
Guess that's why you can hear jokes in Detroit about Ainge getting a Pistons ring.
As long and effective as Tayshaun Prince is, make sure you factor in the Wallace brothers when anointing Prince as the closest thing there is to a new Kobe Stopper. Just like Bruce Bowen, when he had Tim Duncan and David Robinson behind him, Kobe Stoppers are only as good as their help.
The closest thing to a guarantee out of Detroit's camp on the eve of Game 5?
"We're going to be better next year than we are now," Dumars said.
It's been the Year Of The Team in the NBA. That's why the Pistons made such ideal champs.