- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Either the well-being of the free world is tied to the Lakers winning the 2004 NBA championship or the whole weapons-of-mass-destruction ruse is still too fresh for anyone to accept they've been misled once again. Or maybe both. That's the only way I can explain the prevailing notion that the Lakers are still the team to beat after what happened in the first two games in Los Angeles.
Then again, as any junkie will tell you, it's not the dope that kills you, it's the denial.
What is all this talk about "how do the Pistons recover" and "the landscape has completely shifted" as a result of losing Game 2 in overtime? I could understand such sentiment if Detroit had lost Game 1 or if the Lakers hadn't pulled out the stops to win Game 2. But stop kidding yourselves. Shaq played 48 minutes, coach Phil Jackson gave a rookie (Luke Walton) 26 minutes out of pure desperation and Karl Malone risked a lifetime limp to keep going and still it was only barely enough. The Pistons were down 11 and had all of their big men in foul trouble and methodically chipped away until the Lakers had to pick themselves up off the mat with a Kobe Bryant 3-pointer from 28 feet. The Pistons clearly demonstrated they are the mentally tougher, defensively stronger team for all of Game 1 and most of Game 2 and yet they're the ones who are, or should be, reeling?
Now, I'm in no way suggesting the Lakers can't come back to win this year's title. They've done the miraculous turnaround act before. They were down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs, by all accounts calling ahead to get their offseason homes spruced and then abruptly recovered to knock off the defending champions with four consecutive wins.
But let's be clear: At this stage, the Lakers have to come back to win this series. It's an uphill climb and the wind is in their face. They gave away homecourt advantage in Game 1. They either didn't give their best effort in what Shaquille O'Neal called a "must win" in Game 2 or their best effort is significantly less than previously thought. And they are now in Detroit for three games with their flag bearer, Malone, either playing on one leg or not at all.
Let's also be clear: The Lakers are as handicapped defensively by Malone's untimely uni-ped status as the Timberwolves were offensively by Sam Cassell's and face the same tough dilemma -- at what point is he more hindrance than help? And how do you tell a warrior like Malone it's the former? And what kind of impact will that have on the rest of your team if you do?
Forget the comparisons of Kobe's shot in Game 2 and Derek Fisher's .4-second heave against the Spurs. The circumstances, and teams, couldn't be more different. Fisher hit his shot in Game 5, on the Spurs' home floor and against a San Antonio team that had already lost two in a row. Kobe hit his at home, in Game 2, to dodge a 2-0 hole. The Spurs also had three fragile egos -- Rasho Nesterovic, Tony Parker and Hedo Turkoglu -- in the starting lineup alone that played Game 6 as if Game 5 were still dancing before their eyes. The Pistons have sustained gut-wrenching losses in these playoffs before and collectively squared their shoulders and gone back to work. They lost to the Bucks early in Round 1, to the Nets in triple-overtime in Round 2 and to the Pacers by 15 in the conference finals -- all at home, no less, either to tie the series or fall behind. They even lost three in a row to the defending conference champion Nets and recovered for two must wins. Discount all that as Leastern Conference scrumming at your own risk.
Let's also not make too much of coach Larry Brown's postgame description of the Game 2 loss as "crushing." Brown, if you ever watched him on a sideline or heard him in a huddle or talked to him in a casual conversation, is theatrical. He's even, dare I say, an embellisher. At that moment, behind that microphone, I'm sure some part of him felt crushed. I'm also sure that it had been fully restored by the time he got off the plane in Detroit, having cooked up the counters he plans to spring on the Lakers in Game 3.
"We've had similar experiences in these playoffs," Brown says. "I never spent any time on those losses."
As I see it, there's only one reason to believe the Lakers will win this series, and that's that Kobe Bryant can save their bacon three more times. I have no problem with anyone who believes he can, because the dude has done the seemingly impossible enough times to deserve that respect. Personally, I think carrying this Lakers' team with all its dings and downgraded parts to another ring is even too much for Crazy Eight. Or are you expecting Shaq to do more than he already is? Not likely. He's scored well and made the majority of his free throws, but he played 48 minutes and had seven rebounds and one blocked shot. Rip Hamilton had more rebounds than that and Luke Walton had more blocked shots. The Diesel, for whatever reason, is laboring and, until anyone knows why, it's hard to count on a change.
Or maybe you are placing all your purple hopes and golden dreams on the newest L.A. fan favorite, Luuuuuke. Eaaaassssy there. Sure, he came out of nowhere to contribute seven points, eight assists and five rebounds, not to mention a heap of vital help defense, in Game 2. Just be forewarned, this has happened against Detroit before and the surprise hit of the party was out on the porch the following game. Toni Kukoc had 15 points and nine rebounds in the Bucks' upset, then was held to two points and one rebound in Game 3. Brian Scalabrine poured in 17 points in New Jersey's triple-overtime win but didn't score in 15 minutes in the final two games of the series. Austin Croshere had 14 points in the Pacers' big Game 4 win but just two in the pivotal Game 5 loss.
"Throughout the playoffs we've had guys jump up and have good games on us," Ben Wallace said. "We just have to make some adjustments."
As they have, game by game and series by series, overcoming one supposedly dire situation after another with their methodical offense and will-sapping defense. The landscape has shifted far more violently than Game 2 did and the Pistons have had actual, honest-to-God holes to crawl out of -- and they have. Every time.
"We're here," says Mehmet Okur, "and we're not going anywhere. We're playing a great team, but we're a great team, too."
And if they're the only ones who think that, well, so be it. Everybody has to sober up eventually.
People should be wondering how the Lakers, not the Pistons, can come back and win the title.