- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Karl Malone beat the critics to the punch by heaping the abuse on himself, posthaste, after averaging one point per 11 minutes for four, total. Gary Payton decided to simply avoid the media, a ruse that cost him $5,000 and didn't stop anyone from talking about how Chauncey Billups outscored him 22-3. Derek Fisher's injured knee also received its fair amount of attention, but Fisher went unscathed, having earned a year's supply of absolution cards with that miracle shot against the Spurs.
Which makes me wonder: Is Devean George so bad that he can have five points and three rebounds in 27 minutes, being matched up against Rip Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter, and no one bats an eye? I could've sworn I heard this year about how Devean has arrived and come into his own and been the quiet fifth Beatle in an otherwise Hall of Fame-stocked starting lineup. In fact, I saw him be a huge factor at times in the Minnesota and San Antonio series.
So I have to ask: Is it wrong to expect more from a young, up-and-coming player with the most advantageous matchup vs. casting aspersions upon two veterans who clearly are overmatched at this point in their careers?
Not for the Lakers, apparently. The winner for unsolicited advice and instruction from both teammates and coach Phil Jackson had to be George, who had someone in his ear about either how to guard Tayshaun Prince or how to make the Pistons pay for putting their weakest defender on him.
"There's a different whipping boy every year," Fisher says. "This has been Devean's year. Every time something happens, Devean is going to get the whip."
Far be it for me to pile on, but if there's a matchup that could very well determine which way this series swings, it's the one at small forward between George and Prince, who did an admirable job defending Kobe Bryant and found time to collect 11 points, six rebounds and four assists. Both George and Prince are notoriously streaky, which means George should have the chance to even the score.
"Tayshaun got to his strong hand more times than not," Lakers defensive assistant coach Jim Cleamons said. "We've got to try to limit that. He's underrated and overlooked."
I don't expect Payton to be a defensive factor against Billups if Shaquille O'Neal doesn't provide more help on high pick-and-rolls and he's got no shot, literally and figuratively, against a team defense as solid as Detroit's. In the previous two series, coach Phil Jackson could post him up against the Spurs' Tony Parker or Minnesota's equally diminutive Darrick Martin, but that's not an option against Billups and a trio of shot-blockers in Prince and the Wallaces, Rasheed and Ben.
Malone is going to have an equally tough series. He's got a bad wheel and he'll be trying to score over either Ben or 'Sheed, both of whom are long, strong athletes who can hold their ground. He also can't hope to have the same defensive impact against Rasheed because, one, he's not the primary option Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were, and, two, he's a blend of the two, blessed with KG's range and TD's post-up strength.
Please don't suggest that Payton and Malone should be able to contribute just because they're the ones most desperate for a ring. Wanting something badly isn't enough if you don't have the raw goods to get it. Besides, you don't think 'Sheed and Billups, both of whom have been maligned in their own way, don't have something to prove, too?
Fisher, meanwhile, has had the invincible fire lit by the game-winning, series-saving shot against the Spurs dampened, either by a knee injury in Game 5 against the Timberwolves or his reduced role. In any case, the Lakers aren't likely to look for Fisher against Billups and Pistons coach Larry Brown believes Hunter has the perfect combination of strength and quickness to stay with him as well.
Then there's Rick Fox, who, by his own admission, "is driving the heavy machinery these days." As in he doesn't have the athleticism to hang with either Rip or Tayshaun and isn't big or long enough to bother Corliss Williamson.
So that leaves us with Devean, who conceded that he didn't give his best effort in Game 1 but stopped short of seeing himself as the linchpin to changing the Laker's fortunes in Game 2.
"We all have to pull our weight," he said. "Kobe and Shaq need to pick it up, too. Everybody does. Personally, my role on this team is to bring energy. I don't need to score 20 points; I need to pick everybody up."
From where I stand, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Nothing would pick the Lakers up more against this Pistons' stifling defense than to see Devean score 20 points. Or go down trying.
Devean George must make the Pistons pay for putting their weakest defender on him.