Detroit needs one more Finals answer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) -- The better team won again. And yes,
the Detroit Pistons are proving they are clearly the better team.

Poised and primed for a title, Detroit took care of business
while the Lakers were losing their cool. Building a lead early in
the fourth quarter and holding it the rest of the way, the Pistons
moved one victory closer to their first championship in 14 years
with a convincing 88-80 victory Sunday night in Game 4 of the NBA

With a 3-1 lead, the surprising Pistons have made one thing
crystal clear: They are the superior team, winning without egos and
superstars -- and the problems that come with them.

"They have got a coach who won nine championships," Detroit
coach Larry Brown said. "They have got two of the greatest players
that are in their prime, so we can't take anything for granted.
That's the thing we're going to talk about."

These were some of the scenes Pistons fans will cherish:
Chauncey Billups making timely 3-pointers, Rasheed Wallace
backpedalling downcourt with a minute left after making a jumper
that capped his best game of the playoffs; Richard Hamilton calmly
knocking down free throws.

As for the Lakers, the snapshots were these: Kobe Bryant
screaming at the referees and picking up a late technical foul;
Shaquille O'Neal yelling at someone in the Lakers' huddle, most
likely Bryant, after two particularly egregious shot selections;
Karl Malone staying parked on the bench for the entire fourth
quarter, a nonfactor again; Gary Payton getting toasted by Hamilton

It's almost over for these Lakers, their breakup possibly coming
in the next week. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in
the finals, and the Lakers seem ill-equipped to become the first.

Game 5 is Tuesday night, and the Pistons -- heavy underdogs when
the series began -- could become the first team to bring the title
back to the Eastern Conference since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls
won it in 1998.

"Well, a disappointing night tonight," Lakers coach Phil
Jackson said. "We got caught off-guard in the fourth quarter and
were not able to handle the run they made in the fourth quarter

"Give credit to the Pistons."

Wallace scored 26, Billups had 23 and Hamilton 17 to lead
Detroit, which outscored the Lakers 32-24 in the fourth quarter.

"We're just tough to play when we can get 'Sheed going like
that," Billups said.

O'Neal had 36 and Bryant 20 for the Lakers, whose dysfunctional
two-man show isn't enough to keep up with Detroit's depth and

O'Neal took 21 shots and made 16, and he might have doubled
those totals if his teammates had gotten him the ball more often.
But Bryant somehow found it necessary to launch 14 attempts in the
first half and 25 overall, many of which were both unwise and

No one else on the Lakers had more than eight points, and Los
Angeles again was outrebounded and plagued by fouls.

"My shots, some of them were good and some of them stunk --
that's pretty much every game with me," Bryant said. "I think
everyone's a little down right now."

Detroit made 29 field goals and 28 foul shots and scored 21
points on the fast break in what was the closest game of the series
until the Pistons broke it open with a 7-0 run for a 77-67 lead
with 4:52 left. The Lakers got no closer than seven the rest of the
way as the Pistons made shots -- whether from the field or the foul
line -- when they needed them.

"It was just my night," said Wallace, whose previous high in
this postseason was 22. He shot 10-for-23 with 13 rebounds and two
blocks, while Billups shot 7-for-12 and Billups was 5-for-11.

None of those lines was anything spectacular, and that was
fitting for a team that gets the job done efficiently if not

"We can play with this team," insisted O'Neal. "We haven't
played well yet or shown it yet.

"It's a big challenge for us, and the stage is set," O'Neal
said. "The pressure is on them, they have to close us out."

It was widely expected that Jackson would change his starting
lineup or rotations, especially after five of the Lakers' veterans
-- O'Neal, Bryant, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Devean George -- had an
off-day conference with Jackson in a restroom at The Palace,
pleading with him to put his trust in them since they know his
triangle offense best. But Jackson went with his usual starting

Though the Lakers botched their first couple of possessions,
they quickly began getting the ball to O'Neal deep in the low post.
His first two shots were dunks, his next two were 5-footers from
either side of the basket, and the fifth was an alley-oop dunk.
O'Neal went 5-for-5 in a first quarter that ended with the Lakers
ahead 22-21.

After missing a shot, O'Neal hit his next two midway through the
second quarter and yelled "Try to stop that!" to no one in
particular with an animated expression on his face. The pace of the
quarter was slow thanks to 16 fouls before Mike James took control
and ran two fast breaks by himself, converting both times to help
Detroit to a 41-39 halftime lead.

Wallace began to carry the Pistons in the third quarter,
dominating his matchup with Slava Medvedenko after Malone left the
game. A late 6-0 run by the Lakers, ending with a steal and dunk by
Bryant, produced a 56-56 deadlock entering the final period.

Hamilton hit two jumpers to open the fourth quarter, Ben Wallace
rebounded his own missed free throw and banked it in for a 65-60
lead, and a 3 by Billups made it 70-64 with 6:20 left

After the Lakers got within three, Billups hit another 3-pointer
to start the game-deciding 7-0 run.

"I told them how proud I was," coach Larry Brown said. "But
no matter how you look at it, you've got to win four games in the

Game notes
For the fourth straight game, O'Neal was called for a jump
ball violation on the opening tip. ... Rasheed Wallace got his
first technical foul of the series and second of the postseason for
jawing at Medvedenko after fouling him in the third quarter.
Medvedenko also got a tech on the play. ... Recording artist Kid
Rock sang an a cappella rendition of America The Beautiful, and
yes, he did remove his hat.