The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons were able to finish 2nd overall in the Central Division, behind the Indiana Pacers. Led by new coach Larry Brown and boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of forward Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons advanced to the 2004 NBA Finals defeated the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in the four games to one, winning their third overall championship and first since 1990.
The Finals were played using a 2-3-2 site format, where the first two and last two games are held at the team with home court advantage. This is only used in the Finals, all other playoff series are held in a 2-2-1-1-1 format (the team with home court advantage starts).
Payton and Malone also added to the publicity of the Finals. Perennial All-Stars who had both previously reached the Finals, Payton had led the Seattle SuperSonics there in 1996, while Malone had led the Utah Jazz there in 1997 and 1998. However, Michael Jordan and the Bulls denied their championship rings a total of three times. By the time of Jordan's retirement in 2003, the two veterans were aged and failed to lead their teams deep into the playoffs. Thus, this Finals series was seen as the last chance for two of the greatest players in NBA history to finally become NBA champions (Later on, Malone retired while Payton became a champion as a key bench player for the Miami Heat).
Considered to be a stunning upset by most of the NBA world, the Detroit Pistons managed to defeat the Lakers with imposing defense. Defensively clamping down on everyone but Bryant and O'Neal, the Pistons managed to hold everyone else to a total of 16 points.
The Pistons trailed the Lakers 41–40 at halftime, but a 10–4 surge capped by Billups's 3-pointer gave the Pistons the lead. O'Neal's foul trouble furthered the scoring gap, with the Pistons leading by 13 points early in the fourth quarter.
Tuesday, June 8, 2004, 15:04 at the Staples Center.
The second game was close throughout the first half, but in the third quarter Detroit would score 30 points, cutting the deficit 68–66. However, at the end of the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant's 3-point shot at 2.1 seconds to go would tie the game at 89–89. The Lakers and Pistons would then go to overtime, with the Lakers outscoring the Pistons 10–2.
The Pistons beat Los Angeles by 20 in their first NBA Finals appearance together at The Palace of Auburn Hills since 1989 to take a 2–1 lead in the series. The 68 points scored by the Lakers set a (post-shot clock) franchise record for the fewest number of points scored in a playoff game. (Even Jay Leno was upset, saying in his Tonight Show monologue: "68 points? 68 is a great score...if you're playing golf!")
Tuesday, June 15, 2004, 14:32 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
In Game 5, the Pistons won their first championship since 1990, and Larry Brown finally won a title as an NBA head coach. The Pistons defense had overcome the high-scoring Laker offense, winning the game by 13, winning the series 4-1, and also ending a long Laker dynasty that lasted for many years. The game saw the end of Phil Jackson's first run as the coach (he returned for the 2005-06 season), and saw O'Neal, Payton, and Malone's last games in Laker uniforms (O'Neal and Payton were both acquired by the soon-to-be NBA Champions Miami Heat and Malone retired).