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Pistons put Pacers out, join Lakers in Finals


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The Detroit Pistons' run started last summer when coach Rick Carlisle was fired in a shocking fashion and a project named Darko Milicic was drafted in between two players named LeBron and Carmelo.

The journey continued as the team adjusted to coach Larry Brown, watched the maturation of Richard Hamilton and welcomed the late-season addition of Rasheed Wallace.

And now the Pistons are back where they were when their general manager played for them - the NBA Finals.

Joe Dumars' team is no longer the "Bad Boys," but they are good enough to be Eastern Conference champions after last night's 69-65 victory over the Indiana Pacers at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Detroit won the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers with a 4-2 series victory, their first conference championship since Dumars, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the gang used to torment the Chicago Bulls.

"This is a great feeling," Dumars said. "This is where we want to be."

Indiana posted the league's best regular-season record and led for 44 minutes, 3 seconds of Game 6, but was hurt by its emotional sparkplug, Ron Artest.

Seconds after missing a left-handed shot in the lane with the score tied, Artest was called for a flagrant foul on Hamilton with 3:57 remaining that led to a four-point possession and Detroit's first lead of the game.

Upset at the missed shot and thinking Hamilton had fouled him as they battled for post position, Artest retaliated with a right forearm to the head.

Hamilton hit the ensuing free throws and Detroit maintained possession, which Wallace made fortuitous when he tip-slammed home Chauncey Billups' miss.

"That was a tough call," Carlisle said.

Indiana slowly unraveled from there, with Reggie Miller even missing a technical foul shot. An 8-2 Pistons run followed, capped by Tayshaun Prince's jumper with 46.1 seconds left.

Only Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal held it together, hitting a jumper with 40.4 seconds left to make it 67-63. O'Neal finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks while still wearing a brace on his sore left knee.

"Our guys showed a lot of courage," Carlisle said.

The teams looked as if they were playing for draft lottery position instead of a conference championship in an offensively challenged first half. Detroit trailed by 14 in a first quarter in which it shot 17.6 percent.

As it stood, the teams combined for the lowest-scoring first half in playoff history when Indiana led 33-27.

Ben Wallace, who was added to the U.S. Olympic team earlier in the day, had 12 points and 16 rebounds for Detroit. Hamilton rebounded from Artest's lockdown defense and a 2-for-10 start to lead the Pistons with 21 points.

"Last year, we didn't know what it took to get over the hump," Hamilton said of a conference finals sweep by New Jersey. "This year, nobody was dreading training camp, like, 'Oh, man, the season is about to start up.' Everybody was excited. Everybody wanted to put on their hard hats and go to work."

The work continues Sunday in Game 1 of the Finals.

NOTE: The Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal said after the game that his injured left knee probably will keep him from playing for the U.S. Olympic team this summer.

"If I had to say today if I was going to Athens, I would say, 'No,' " said ONeal, who has a small ligament tear that he said would need four to six months to heal.

Losing the 6-foot-11 forward/center would be a blow to the U.S. team, especially since such big men as Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Kenyon Martin already have begged off.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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