'Pound for Pound' worth every penny

Updated: June 10, 2004, 3:40 PM ET
By David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Here's where Pound for Pound has to earn his loot.

Rasheed Wallace calls Larry Brown "Pound for Pound." I thought it was in reference to "pound for pound, the best coach out there," although 'Sheed says it simply is a reflection of the man's initials, LB. As in, you know, pound.

Larry Brown and Kevin Grigg
Larry Brown might be down but don't count on his Pistons being out.
See, I think Larry Brown is the greatest basketball coach currently walking this earth. There is no situation, no team, no time in which you wouldn't want him on your sidelines drawing up sets and trying to get your team to play the right way. ("Play the right way" is Brown's mantra, his shorthand for basketball played the Dean Smith Way. It should be on Brown's tombstone.) And for about 90 of the first 96 minutes of the Finals, P4P has been a step ahead of Phil Jackson. He's had his Pistons ready to play and he's adjusted brilliantly on the fly.

But there is no sugarcoating this: Brown made a mistake, it says here, in the waning seconds of Game 2. And as a result, he's going to have to do his greatest coaching job in the 48 hours his guys aren't on the floor, between Game 2 and Game 3.

With Detroit up three with 10.9 seconds left in regulation on Tuesday, Brown surely knew that the Lakers, after dawdling with the ball in the backcourt before calling timeout, had no choice but to hoist up a long-distance rock. And onto the court for L.A. walked Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Karl Malone ... and Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal, of the one career 3-pointer in 20 attempts. O'Neal, the career 53.4 percent free-throw shooter.

But surely, the Diesel was on the floor simply to set a screen for Kobe or Fisher, or maybe even Walton, who'd hit a three earlier in the game and was playing out of his mind. And then, Malone inbounded the ball ... to O'Neal! If ever a player was on a floor with a neon sign around his neck flashing Foul Me! Foul Me! (and don't forget the $4.99 buffet from 4-6 p.m. in the Palmetto Lounge), it was Shaq.

But O'Neal was allowed to catch the ball and hand it off to Luke Walton, who got it to Kobe, who ... well, you know.

"We talked about" fouling O'Neal, Brown said. "But I didn't think they were going to throw it to him. ... We talked about if they threw it inside, yeah, Shaq gets it, put him on the line. But I don't want to take a chance like that."

LB. You could probably assume in that situation that if Shaq catches the ball outside the 3-point line -- Shaq, the career 5-percent 3-point shooter -- he's not going to turn around and fire. He's looking to pass. Probably to Bryant. Almost certainly to Bryant. Who else but Bryant?

Said Ben Wallace: "I thought about it ... but that's a shot we have to live with."

Of course, Wallace should have fouled him. But players, in this situation, are allergic to the idea of making contact. Their instinct is to stay away; no one wants to give a team three free ones that could tie the game. This is where a coach has to come in and overpower their uncertainty. He has to say, "This is the right thing to do. Foul Shaq if he touches the ball at all."

My colleague Fred Carter convinced me of the rightness of this strategy. If, up three, you foul the opponent and put them on the line, even if they make both free throws, you're still ahead by a point -- and you have the basketball. In this situation, the Lakers would have to give a quick foul and put the Pistons on the line -- and Detroit has excellent free-throw shooters in Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Lindsey Hunter. 'Sheed has knocked them down at better than 76 percent in the postseason, too. You make your two free throws, they get the ball -- and you foul them again. As long as you make your free throws -- and in 10 seconds, there wouldn't have been but so many -- you win. But under no circumstances do you let a team down three get off a 3-pointer.

Brown doesn't think much of Hack-a-Shaq as a strategy. But in this case, it wouldn't have been strategy. It would have been game management.

(By the way, let me take a minute here to address the words of another LB, Larry Bird. Bird was asked in an interview for an upcoming program if the league needed more white stars. He answered yes, because it would be good for the NBA's fan base, which is comprised mostly of white Americans. I know some of my friends will say that there is something wrong or racially problematic with what Bird said, to which I reply: shutupshutupshutupshutup. First, Bird didn't bring the subject up; he answered a question. Second, to deny that white people would like to see white athletes prosper is stupid. Black people like to see blacks succeed; Latinos like to see Latinos succeed; Asians like to see Asians succeed. [That's "Asians," not "Orientals," Bill Parcells.] You would hope that we all would like to see each other succeed, but that's another question, isn't it? Third, Bird has never, to my knowledge, exploited his race for his own personal gain. Throughout the '80s, when hosannas were being written about him and fans lionized him, it would have been easy for Bird to subtly put himself out there as some Great White Hope, and to make a killing doing it. But he didn't. He played the game and frequently gave the credit not to himself, but to black teammates like Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish. No one has made less of the fact that Bird is white than Bird.)

But let's get back to Brown. Believe me, I'm not the only one wondering why the order to foul wasn't given, and I'm not talking about hack sportswriters and hairdo TV folk. There was some distinct grumbling about the decision in the Detroit locker area after Game 2. To give the Lakers a game -- and it was given to them, not taken by them, no matter what the Kobe Hagiographers in L.A. write -- is worse than getting blown out.

Here, though, is where the Pistons are fortunate. The same guy who goofed Tuesday is the absolute best guy in the world to make things right by Thursday.

Bill Davidson is paying Brown $5 million a year for moments exactly like this. It was Brown that cajoled, threatened, yelled and praised Danny Manning into the performance of his life in the 1988 NCAA championship game -- a feat that brought the Jayhawks the national championship. It was Brown who got the Clippers to the playoffs. It was Brown who helped shape Allen Iverson into the NBA's Most Valuable Player. And in these Finals, it's been Brown who's instilled in these Pistons a no-fear mindset.

He's stripped the Lakers of their supposed invincibility and swagger, exposed them to his players for what they are: a talented, tough, but somewhat flawed team. Brown told the Pistons they could get any shot they wanted against the Lakers in Game 1, and didn't care who knew it. Brown already has his guys convinced that the Lakers have no clothes. Now, he has to re-inflate their belief in themselves to get the job done at home.

In 48 hours.

It won't take videotape, or some rah-rah speech. It'll just take Brown doing what he does better than anyone in the world.

"You think we're gonna lay down?," 'Sheed asked defiantly in the locker room on Tuesday.

Not with P4P in the house.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. David will take your questions in his weekly chat on Thursday. Send him a question here! Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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