AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Now it seems a matter of when and not if, for the Detroit Pistons to clinch a championship that no one saw coming, and for the sun to set on the tottering dynasty of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Game 4 of the NBA Finals brought a monster game from Shaquille O'Neal, but no relief to the beleaguered Lakers. Just another night when Detroit had too strong of defense, too many free throws and too much of Chauncey Billups. All parts of an 88-80 Detroit victory that leaves the Pistons ahead 3-1, and on the brink of the first Eastern Conference NBA title since Michael Jordan wore a Chicago Bulls uniform.
Sensing they are getting close to the kill, the Pistons survived a tense trial by fire — a game that included 18 ties, 18 lead changes, and 36 points and 20 rebounds from O'Neal.
But from a 56-56 tie after three periods, the Pistons crushed the Lakers with a 32-point fourth quarter, mercilessly finishing off a team they have grown completely confident they can outfight and outwill and outplay.
Of Billups' 23 points, six came on two 3-pointers that built the Detroit lead in the fourth quarter, ignited the crowd and seemed to sag Los Angeles for good. Of Rasheed Wallace's 26 points, 10 came in the last period to turn back any threat.
The Lakers, their mystique in tatters, are left with several truths to stare out for the next two days here, waiting for Game 5, possible extinction:
Kobe Bryant is being kept under control by Tayshaun Prince and friends. On this crucial night, he was 8-for-25 for his 20 points, having to score in off-balance prayers, in frantic attempts to score.
There is little help from anywhere else. Remarkably, for the fourth game in a row, no Laker but O'Neal and Bryant were in double figures.
And there is this cold, cold reality. No team in the history of the NBA Finals has ever lost a 3-1 lead.
The Pistons want very much to close the deal Tuesday, lest the series move back to Los Angeles.
But location does not seem to matter in this coup.
What matters is Detroit's intent to attack the basket at both ends. A key reason the Pistons outscored Los Angeles 28-11 from the free throw line Sunday and an astounding 91-50 for the series.
What matters is the Pistons' defense has the Lakers weary and rattled by the fourth period, out of ideas and raw of temper. Included in Detroit's final run to victory was a Bryant technical foul.
What matters is that the Lakers played their best card Sunday ... putting the ball in O'Neal's hands, and it didn't work.
The gravity of the Lakers' situation was clear Friday when five veterans from the championship days — O'Neal, Bryant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Devean George —pulled Jackson into a Palace bathroom for a quick meeting to suggest a change in the lineup, replacing the injured Malone and a futile Payton.
"Proactive leadership," Jackson called it. But after pondering, considering, and discussing it with his team at-large, he stayed with his usual starters.
That settled, the Lakers began with obvious intent. O'Neal was to see the ball more inside, and he had 17 points by halftime.
They began with emotion. Jackson had a technical only 3:28 into the game, for wandering too far from the bench while complaining about a call.
And they began with a lead, something they never had in Game 3. Not much of one though, for the first half was eyeball to eyeball — it was tied on every even number from 2 to 18 — with Detroit ahead 41-39 at halftime.
Both teams had reason to feel fortunate.
The Pistons were ahead, despite shooting 32.4 percent, with only one field goal and four points from Hamilton.
The Lakers were just two points down, despite Bryant's 3-for-14 and a 17-4 Detroit gap in free throws.
The third period was the same, with the Pistons ahead, then behind, then tied 56-56 with a quarter to go. Two teams refusing to budge, both aware time is beginning to slip away in the NBA Finals. And now the clock ticks on the Lakers.