AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — As the entry pass floated inside to Shaquille O'Neal, Elden Campbell reached his left arm around and knocked it away. As O'Neal stood planted in the paint, Richard Hamilton picked up the loose ball and flung it forward.
The only player running downcourt was the 36-year-old Campbell, the backup center who was a rookie back in 1991 — one season after the Detroit Pistons were at the end of their glory years. Campbell caught the ball and went flying in for a left-handed jam, and the decibel level at the Palace went off the charts.
The play early in the fourth quarter not only gave the Pistons an 18-point lead, it symbolized the way the entire night went Detroit's way in an 88-68 victory Thursday night over Los Angeles in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Detroit's defense was suffocating, its offense was opportunistic and its fans were in a frenzy.
Now, an NBA championship is very much within the Pistons reach, and it even seems like a distinct possibility. No Eastern Conference team has won a title since 1998, but these Pistons are proving that the time may have arrived for that drought to end.
Holding Kobe Bryant without a field goal in the first half and limiting the Lakers to the lowest point total in their storied franchise history, Detroit showed no aftereffects from their crushing Game 2 loss. The Pistons regained control of a series they've dominated for all but a few minutes.
Hamilton scored 31 points and Chauncey Billups had 19 as Detroit's backcourt gave the Pistons just about all the offense they needed. Throw in double-figure rebounding performances by Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, three steals apiece from Campbell and Tayshaun Prince, and it all added up to a lopsided game that could even be called a mismatch in favor of the team that entered the series as huge underdogs.
Game 4 is Sunday night at the arena where two championship banners hang in the north end zone.
And if form holds, this series might not even make it back to Los Angeles for a Game 6 or 7.
Nothing worked for the Lakers, from Bryant's offense to O'Neal's touch to Karl Malone's ailing knee to Gary Payton's slow feet.
Campbell's breakaway dunk put the Pistons ahead 70-52, and Los Angeles never mounted anything even resembling a concerted comeback effort. The crowd went wild with 2:10 remaining when little-used rookie Darko Milicic got off the bench for his series debut.
Bryant finished with just 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting and O'Neal scored 14. No one else on the Lakers scored in double figures.
"We never get down. That was a heartbreaker in Game 2, and people thought we would be flat, but we were even more hungry," Billups said. "We just keep contesting everything. Tayshaun was great tonight contesting every shot Kobe took. The Big Fella is a problem for us, but Ben and Rasheed are down there working, and so is Elden."
After O'Neal opened the second half with a dunk, the Pistons got the offense in gear and began to pull away. Billups scored nine points in the first four minutes of the quarter on a pair of 3s and a drive around Payton for a three-point play, and a follow dunk by Prince forced the Lakers to call timeout trailing 54-40.
Bryant eventually hit his first shot with 7:35 left in the third quarter, making an 18-footer, but the Pistons answered back with a gorgeous display of passing as Prince fed Rasheed Wallace five feet from the basket, and he in turn threaded a soft toss to Ben Wallace for a layup.
More of the same followed, the Lakers growing increasingly frustrated by each botched possession, the Pistons becoming more emboldened by their ability to create a quality shot. It was 63-51 after three quarters, and the lead grew to 20 before the fourth quarter was even four minutes old.
Campbell even added another deflection just moments after his breakaway dunk, and Lindsey Hunter turned it into a layup to make it 72-52.
Bryant scored only one point in the first half, missing all four of his attempts from the field and committing one egregious turnover when he fired a pass several feet over the head of a teammate and into the second row of the stands.
But as bad as Bryant was, the Pistons weren't much better — especially in the second quarter. Detroit went 12 consecutive possessions at one point without a field goal and missed five free throws in the period to allow the Lakers to stay within striking range.
Los Angeles finally started pounding the ball inside to O'Neal late in the quarter, and his two late buckets helped the Lakers keep their deficit manageable. The Pistons led 39-32 at halftime behind 14 points from Hamilton.