AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Magic Johnson (search) left the building with a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, unwilling to watch the Los Angeles Lakers (search) being jeered off the floor after a blowout loss.
And whatever magic these Lakers still possessed left The Palace much earlier in the Detroit Pistons' (search) 88-68 victory Thursday night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Two days after he seemed immortal, Kobe Bryant was mediocre. Shaquille O'Neal cried for calls and touches he didn't get. Their teammates seemed out of shape and out of their element — and the Lakers got run over in the loudest suburb of the Motor City.
"They're human," Detroit's Rasheed Wallace said. "They bleed, just like us."
Though they're only halfway there with a 2-1 series lead, the Pistons seemed ready to shock the league and claim the franchise's third title. No Eastern Conference team without Michael Jordan on its roster has beaten the West since 1990, the second of Detroit's consecutive championship seasons.
"You've got a chance, you look down the road like that, but we can't look down the road," guard Chauncey Billups said. "We've just got a great unit. We can hurt you in so many different ways. I think we are just a very, very good basketball team."
Richard Hamilton scored 31 points for the Pistons, adding another impressive performance to his star-making postseason run. Billups had 19 points, and the Pistons held the Lakers to their lowest point total in the franchise's celebrated playoff history.
From the Pistons' game-opening 8-0 run to their celebratory fourth quarter, everything in Game 3 seemed designed for the maximum enjoyment of the deafening sellout crowd in this basketball-crazy city. But that dominance was no surprise, because Detroit clearly has been the superior team for all but a few minutes of this series.
"Well, I don't think we can defend better than we did tonight," coach Larry Brown said. "Hey, we held them to 68 points (while we shot) 40 percent. For us, that's an incredible accomplishment. ... I'm shocked, but I'm really proud of the way we played."
As the Pistons flew home from Los Angeles two nights earlier, Brown looked around the plane, wondering how his team would respond to blowing a six-point lead in the final 40 seconds of regulation when Bryant hit his improbable 3-pointer. Brown decided his team had been in enough similar situations and they always responded splendidly.
They did it with a defensive performance for the record books, holding the Lakers to 36.5 percent shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. The Pistons outrebounded the Lakers 51-39 and outscored them in the paint, on the break and on second-chance baskets.
"At halftime, I told the team, 'I don't think we can play any worse than we played,"' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But as I told the team, this is only one game. We have a couple days to get our feet on the ground and get ready for Game 4."
Game 4 is Sunday night, and the Lakers will feel the pressure of their sticky situation for the ensuing two days. Game 5 is Tuesday night, also in Auburn Hills.
O'Neal had 14 points and eight rebounds, taking just 14 shots and battling foul trouble while shooting just two free throws of his own. Bryant scored just one of his 11 points in the first half, finishing 4-for-13.
Asked why the Lakers didn't get him the ball more, O'Neal replied: "That's the story of my life, buddy."
The rest of the Lakers offered little on either end of the court. Karl Malone played valiantly with a probable torn ligament in his right knee, but managed just five points. Nobody else on the roster scored more than nine points or made more than half of his shots.
"Most of it was effort-related," O'Neal said. "This is a tough challenge, but we are making it a lot tougher on ourselves."
The Pistons have endured horrific scoring slumps during the playoffs, struggling for mere competence. But those stretches occurred against New Jersey and Indiana, two teams with better defenses and more athletic rosters than the Lakers, who rely on star power and mystique.
Against the Lakers, Hamilton and Billups are allowed to roam unimpeded on the perimeter, where they can get open outside shots or penetrate the lane. They hit two 3-pointers apiece in Game 3, and both went 7-for-7 from the free throw line.
The Pistons' lead never dipped below 12 points in the final 20 minutes. The crowd gave countless standing ovations in the fourth quarter, cheering wildly when all five starters checked out simultaneously with 1:48 to play.
"We really fed off our fans," Hamilton said. "We shared the ball. Everybody had each other's back on defense. I think guys did a great job of really playing together."
Notes: The Pistons' final lead was their biggest of the series. ... Darko Milicic, Detroit's mint-condition first-round draft choice, played the final 108 seconds. Milicic, who turns 19 on June 20, became the youngest player to appear in a finals game. ... Struggling Lakers point guard Gary Payton improved slightly, recording six points and seven assists while helping hold Billups to 5-for-11 shooting.