How a 2004 NBA Finals win over Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers cemented Ben Wallace's Hall of Fame legacy

They sat side by side in the middle circle, waiting for Joey Crawford to lift the ball into the air to start the 2004 NBA Finals. Shaquille, a 7-foot-1, 330-pound man of immense power and force, was on one side. On the other was Ben Wallace, who was almost 100 pounds lighter than O'Neal and may not be as tall as he claimed to be at 6-foot-9.
O'Neal, 32 years old, quickly jumped the ball and swiped the ball before it reached its peak. Three plays summarized the series' narrative over the next 90 seconds: The small-market, outmanned Detroit Pistons versus the championship institution that are the Los Angeles Lakers.

With their superteam of stars and ring-hunting veterans, the Lakers were aiming to win a fourth title in five seasons. However, they faced a Pistons team full of underdogs and outcasts. It was Shaq and Kobe along with Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Gary Payton led by Phil Jackson, versus a group of Chauncey Billups Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, and Larry Brown, who is infamously untitled.

Rasheed Wallace's 3-pointer gave the Pistons their first lead. It was a sweet, fluid set that featured weakside screens, sharp cuts, and a sweet, free-flowing pace. After a vigorous set, the Lakers took their first possession. Malone attempted his free throw line fadeaway, but it bounced horribly off the front iron. O'Neal, who had carved out his territory in their paint, then grabbed the ball from behind Ben Wallace. He was the league's best rebounder and O'Neal opened the Lakers' account with a dunk.

Hamilton won the battle on Kobe Bryant with 10:28 remaining in the first quarter. With the score at 3-2, Hamilton found Ben Wallace on his left wing. O'Neal was sagging dramatically, leaving Wallace open for the pick and pop. Wallace hoisted the jumper to 12 feet...about 10 feet.

Air ball.

Al Michaels stated on the broadcast that Rasheed is well-known for both offense and defense. "Ben is only known for his defense."

Michaels may have been right. In fact, Wallace was the NBA Defensive Player-of-the Year twice. He also led the league's rebounding and blocks twice. And he had twice been an All Defensive player. Wallace was a household name and made the All-Star Game in 2003 and 2004. He quickly established himself as a one-way star.

Doc Rivers told Michaels that Ben Wallace's shooting of an air ball does not bother the Pistons. They don't want his offense.

However, they were making a huge bet on Wallace at the other end -- one that would decide the fate of the 2004 Finals. This was a bet that very few teams have ever attempted before.

Detroit made the bold decision to protect O'Neal, the three time NBA champion and 11-time All Star, in a one-on-one situation.

It worked. The Pistons' game plan was a complete failure for the Lakers, and it reset the narrative about the NBA championship criteria. Ben Wallace, an undrafted centre from a small town 30 miles west Montgomery, Alabama, was at the heart of it all. He cemented a legacy that will be cherished in Springfield, Massachusetts, with five games in nine days. On Saturday, a player will be inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Billups, the Portland Trail Blazers' coach who played four seasons with Wallace, says that "he has to be one of the most unlikely Hall of Famers." You will never see the Hall of Fame if you take a look at his childhood, college career, and even his early years of the NBA. You didn't think that when you saw him.

Wallace defeated the NBA's unstoppable force during the 2004 Finals. He was no longer a novelty star. He was bound for NBA immortality.

The Pistons decided to do something unusual in 2004's NBA Finals. They attempted to guard Shaquille O’Neal, a former All-Star, one-on-one. Who was the man who took on this almost impossible task? Ben Wallace. Photo by John Biever/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

JUNE 11, 2000. It was late spring 2000, a decade after the Bad Boys era ended, and years of mediocrity. The Pistons finally opened their path to championship contention.

However, it did so with a trade that pundits deemed a significant loss for the Pistons. The Orlando Magic had traded Grant Hill, a 27-year-old NBA All-Star, to them for pennies on a dollar. This deal netted them a one-dimensional, unproven, zero-time All-Star big-man with just 113 career starts.

While Ben Wallace led the team to an impressive rise in defensive ability, the Pistons won 10 less games than the previous season and missed the playoffs their first four-year run.

The team's defensive prowess was maintained in year 2. However, this time the wins were also there. The Pistons won an additional 18 games with Wallace as their anchor despite only 7.6 points per contest and a paltry 10.5 usage rate. The Eastern Conference semifinals would see them lose to the Boston Celtics. However, Wallace's dominance in one direction earned him the 2001 Defensive Players of the Year award. This was the first of four awards he would win over the next five seasons.

Three of the eventual starters on the title-winning 2004 team, Hamilton, and Billups, helped Prince in his third season.

"Ben didn’t get the credit. Everyone gave me the credit for leading the team. I was one of them, but Ben, according to Billups, "Ben set the culture before Rip got there." It was up to us to follow his lead and come in. Because he is so quiet, he didn't get the credit that he deserved. You know what you're doing if you want to.

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Billups recalled Wallace setting up a screen and rolling to the basket during their first game together in 2002-03. Billups claims that Wallace was willing to receive a pocket pass so he gave him a bounce pass. Wallace immediately returned it to Billups.

Billups was misunderstood. Timeout. He didn't get it. Wallace didn't try to score.

"Nah, nah, nah," Wallace told him. You score. You don't need to look at me if I have a screen. Do what you have to do. "I'm going to add my touch to the glass."

This was a brand new idea for Billups.

"No, that has never happened. Billups claims, "Hell no!" "I have never heard a man tell me that if I set a screen, then I'm rolling. But don't give me the ball." I thought that was insane.

For the second consecutive season, the Pistons won 50 games and were a top-five defense. They were the Bad Boys of old, with their toughness, grit, and selflessness as their hallmarks. Wallace won the league's highest average of 15.4 rebounds per match and 3.2 blocks to win his second consecutive Defensive Players of Year trophy. The Pistons lost in the playoffs again to Jason Kidd's New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference finals.

Rasheed Wallace, the last member of the historic fivesome, arrived in Motown two hundred seventy-one day later. The 2003-04 Pistons won 54 of their games and accumulated the NBA's second best defense. There were no superstars. Their chance to prove their four-year journey was in the Finals against perhaps the most talented team in NBA history.

The conventional wisdom of the time was that Ben Wallace was Dennis Rodman without his wild side, or even a modern Bill Russell. He was a player who focused on being the star in his role. His teammates highlight his tactical prowess, and uncanny instincts.

Billups states, "You don’t know how many people I played with after I had played with Ben,". "The list of people I have tried to make more like Ben goes on and on."

AT ONE TIMES, during the 2004 Finals Billups recalls Wallace requiring new shoes. The insoles of his size 13 and 1 sneakers were ruined, with the soles breaking out.

Billups claims that Ben was fighting so hard, he broke through his shoe trying to resist Shaq backing away. It was the most bizarre thing. He actually blew through his shoes."

The Pistons' defense of O'Neal, which was impossible to guard, was not only bold, but it was also the exact opposite of Brown's plan. The coach preferred the traditional route of using double-teams to defend O'Neal and using the depth of his roster to take fouls as needed.

Hamilton stated to the Detroit Free Press that LB wanted Shaq to be double-teamed and Ben replied, 'No, Ben, I'll protect him head-up.' Hamilton said this in 2016. "You won't hear it from anyone."

"There were many memorable moments in that series, for him. He had many memorable moments in that series. We knew it already." Chauncey Billups on Ben Wallace's performance at the 2004 NBA Finals

It wasn't easy, however. O'Neal is like Marshawn Lynch being tackled solo when he's guarding him one-on-one. There were many instances throughout the series where Wallace couldn't keep up with his physical strength. O'Neal used the bulk of his backside to protect Wallace's weak attempts at a steal in the third quarter. Wallace was eventually thrown aside and dunk two-handedly. O'Neal supported Wallace onto the block in the first quarter. His elbows were sharpened and flying. Wallace then landed on his left shoulder, making it an easy layup. O'Neal, despite Wallace's defense and good positioning, bullied his way onto a block in the second quarter. Wallace missed his first shot, but O'Neal was able to get a putback. O'Neal bulldozed Wallace in the decisive Game 5. He sent him flying into the first row and drew an offensive foul. This was Shaq, after all.

Wallace stated that after Game 4, a win by the Pistons of eight points, Wallace had tried to "force him off the block" and Wallace added, "We did many things." O'Neal scored 36. It didn't work. We tried to face him, but they just threw it overboard. You can only fight.

You might be tempted to believe that O'Neal was his usual dominant self if you look at the raw numbers of O'Neal's series -- 26.6 points, 63% shooting, and 10.8 rebounds.

The scoreboard is the best way to see Wallace's impact. It goes beyond O'Neal's single coverage. The Lakers scored 75 points in Game 1. In Game 3, the Lakers scored 68 points. Game 4: 80. Game 5 was 87. The Lakers shot 41.6% from floor during the series, compared to 45.4% in the regular season. Their offensive rating fell to 96.1 from 105.5, which was sixth in the league. Their 3-point percentage fell to 24.7%. They made six fewer free throws each game. The Pistons kept the ball in their hands almost across the board.

The Pistons would have swept the Lakers without Bryant's buzzer-beater in Game 2.

He was dealing with the dude alone. Two people cannot guard Shaq and we are asking one man to do it and a guy that is probably six inches shorter than Wallace. He had so many memorable moments during that series. He had an incredible rhythm. He was in an incredible rhythm. We already knew that for ourselves."

The Pistons won five games in the 2004 Finals thanks to Wallace's leadership. The Lakers' sixth-ranked offense was unable to overcome the relentless Detroit defense. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

O'Neal was outrebounded by Wallace 68 to 54 in the FIVE Finals games. Wallace's offense saw a significant improvement, with Wallace averaging 10.8 points per series and 13.6 rebounds per games. Flurries of momentum-swinging play were produced by Wallace, such as an open-court steal in Game 5, where he soared to the floor for a one handed dunk. Or a putback that sailed right past O'Neal in the third quarter that gave Detroit a 14 point lead.

Wallace stood up for O'Neal every time he dunk. This forced a contested miss and a turnover. O'Neal did not reach double-digit rebound for the first time ever in his Finals' career. He didn't make a free throw in Game 3 until the fourth quarter. Wallace may not have won in the box score battle but he won this war.

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Billups states, "If there were one word to describe him, it would be relentless." He was not only relentless on floor, as we all had the privilege of experiencing, but he was also relentless in his pursuit of greatness. He was also relentless in his quest to change the course of his family's lives and to get back where he came from.

The Pistons gathered at midcourt at Palace of Auburn Hills. Confetti fell from the rafters following Game 5. Bill Davidson, then the owner of the team, received the trophy and he congratulated Detroit. Davidson held onto the trophy for only two seconds before looking to his right and handing it over to Ben Wallace. Wallace grabbed the trophy and lifted it with both his hands above his head.

"Hand up!" Wallace shouted at the crowd. "Hand up!"

Billups says, "He just felt validated. Like we all did. He felt like, "What can they tell me about me now?" I was not supposed to be here. I was not supposed to be a champion. I was not supposed to be an All-Star. These were not the things I was supposed to do. What can they say now about me, now that we have won it?