The Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, left, tries to keep the ball away from the Pistons' Ben Wallace in the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, where O'Neal was limited to 14 points and 8 rebounds by Detroit's determined dominating defense.
MICHAEL CONROY / AP Enlarge
It's cliche to say, "Defense wins championships."
Truth be told, there's some truth behind the claim when applied to the NBA.
Over the previous 15 seasons the eventual NBA champion had been ranked among the top five in at least one of the two major defensive categories - opponents points per game or opponents field goal percentage - in either the regular season or during the playoffs.
Such claims paint a pretty picture for the Detroit Pistons, who are two wins shy of claiming the franchise's third NBA title.
Detroit ranked first in opponents points per game (82 ppg) and third in opponents field goal percentage (41 percent) in the NBA during the regular season. L.A. ranked 16th in opponents points per game (94.3 ppg ) and opponents field goal percentage (44 percent).
The Pistons orchestrated an impressive display of defense Thursday en route to an 88-68 drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals to take a 2-1 best-of-seven series.
Detroit simply dominated
L.A. like the Lakers had never been dominated before in a playoff setting. The 68 points for the Lakers stand as the lowest point total for a playoff game in team history.
Only a 54-point effort by Utah against Chicago back in 1998 and 67 points by the New York Knicks against San Antonio kept the Lakers from recording the fewest points in a Finals game during the shot clock era.
Furthermore, the 20-point loss is the worst margin of defeat in the Finals for a Lakers team since a 33-point loss to Indiana in Game 5 of the Finals back in 2000. Pistons coach Larry Brown recognized the effectiveness of the Detroit defense in arguably the most significant contest of the series.
"We held them to 68 points, shooting 40 percent," Brown said. "For us that is an incredible accomplishment."
How exactly the Pistons shut down the Lakers to the point of a near-crawl isn't a mystery. Detroit outworked L.A. and executed Brown's defensive schemes flawlessly for most of the 48 minutes.
"I think most of it was effort related, " said Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, after being held in check for 14 points and eight rebounds. "They beat us to everything [Thursday] on those [loose] balls, played a little bit better defense and once again, we had a horrible third quarter. "
The Pistons dictated how Game 3 would be played with their defensive work.
It was the kind of defensive performance that can overcome a lousy offensive output. Neither team shot the ball well. The Lakers made only 27 of 74 shots (36.5 percent), which included a 6-for-27 effort from 3-point territory. The Pistons didn't fair much better shooting the basketball, making only 31 of 76 attempts (41 percent).
However, they outrebounded the Lakers by a 51-39 margin. That included a 15-7 advantage on the offensive glass, which led to a 16-3 edge in second chance points for Detroit.
The Lakers' 32 points at halftime was only two points more than the all-time lowest Finals first half during the shot clock era.
"We played so good defensively," Brown said. "We kept people in front of us, we limited them to one shot for the most part.
"We kept people off the free-throw line. I think one of the keys to keeping people off the line is being able to prevent dribble penetration off fast break opportunities and we did that. "
There's plenty of room for arguing the Lakers simply experienced one of those games losing coaches would like to forget because almost everything went wrong.
Game 3 ranks as O'Neal's lowest scoring output in 22 career Finals games. Kobe Bryant, who went without a field goal in the first half, finished with 11 points, his lowest scoring playoff game dating back to the 2000 Finals against Indiana.
Chauncey Billups said a major key to the Pistons' defensive success is keeping players like O'Neal guessing as to what to expect from the Pistons defensively.
"[O'Neal] is immovable, so we try to just change up our defense and play him in different ways and just not let him know how we're coming, when we're coming, where we're coming," Billups said. "Sometimes we play head up, sometimes we front, sometimes we come from the back side. We are just trying to mix it up."
For the most part, Detroit's defensive game plan has been effective. It's a major reason why the Pistons own a 2-1 series lead and even feel like it could easily be a 3-0 series. However, a defensive lapse in the final seconds of the fourth quarter ultimately cost them Game 2.
Yet, the Pistons head into Game 4 tomorrow night at The Palace knowing they're in the driver's seat thanks.
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