The 2003-4 season was a magical one for the Detroit Pistons, who eventually won the title in a gentleman’s sweep over the hated Lakers.
The Pistons eviscerated the Lakers in five games, shutting down the mighty duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant even though they were heavy underdogs entering the series.
But the interesting thing most fans forget about that year is the Detroit Pistons were very close to being knocked out earlier in the playoffs by tough New Jersey Nets team led by Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin.
The Goin’ to Work team was almost reduced to a footnote and both the Pistons and Nets got a lesson in hubris during a tight game five.
The time the Nets and Pistons learned not to celebrate too soon
It was game five of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals and the Detroit Pistons were down two points with just under 12 seconds left in the game. With Jason Kidd heading to the line for a pair of free throws, it looked to be over for Detroit. If Kidd hits them both, it’s game over.
But Kidd, who was an 82.7 percent free-throw shooter that season, inexplicably missed them both, leaving the door open for the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace grabbed the rebound off the second miss and fired an outlet to Chauncey Billups, who looked as if he was going to go straight for an uncontested layup to tie the game.
That’s when Richard Jefferson made one of the all-time clutch blocks in the playoffs, coming out of nowhere to swat Billups’ shot into the hands of Kerry Kittles, who the Pistons immediately fouled. The Nets celebrated in front of a stunned Palace crowd but forgot they still had business to attend to.
Kittles went to the line with yet another chance to seal the game, but he too missed the first free throw before making the second, putting the Nets up by three.
With just 2.9 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts, Tayshuan Prince hit a moving Billups who immediately got the ball across halfcourt, where he pulled up and nailed the game-tying 3-point shot, sending the game to overtime. You can watch the whole sequence here.
The Nets couldn’t close out the game in regulation and Billups gave them a lesson in celebrating too early. But the Pistons got a dose of it themselves, as they had all of the momentum at home going into overtime but eventually lost the game anyway.
The Nets went up 3-2 and were returning to New Jersey for a chance to close it out at home. It looked like the Detroit Pistons were cooked. But Detroit won a hard-fought game six on the road before blowing out the Nets in Detroit to win the series.
This series had a lot of what-ifs, as the Detroit Pistons were close to blowing their chances of even getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, much less the Finals. Both teams got a little ahead of themselves at times, and it cost them both, but eventually, the Pistons imposed their will and won the series against a feisty Nets team.
The saying “it’s not over until it’s over” is a cliche for a reason, and both teams needed to be reminded at different points in the series.