- Sam Smith
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LOS ANGELES -- OK, Gary, you're right. It is your fault. We'll blame you.
You've got to give Gary Payton that, if not much else. And certainly not the ball. His was a classic rant in the Lakers' conference semifinals with the San Antonio Spurs. All of that blame-him stuff. It was vintage Payton, with lots of edge and a little bit of blind hysteria. Yes, that's the Gary we all know and, well, sort of like.
Of course, as we all know, the Lakers' fate is determined by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. There's a lot more of Karl Malone in there than people expected, as much for leadership in this perpetually splintered team as for production.
Malone was wonderful in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, his shooting and occasional dashes to the basket forcing Kevin Garnett to hang around and defend him instead of running to help on O'Neal, which Garnett did so energetically in Game 2. O'Neal helped by barely caring, which is his wont of late. When it seems the darkest, it dawns on Shaq to start being more serious. Hey, that was Ervin Johnson out there outscoring you in the first half. Bryant said the Timberwolves put O'Neal in a box. Hey, not unless he lets them. Michael Olowokandi? Mark Madsen, for gosh sakes. C'mon Shaq. Take some of the blame going to Payton.
Yes, Gary. That was Darrick Martin out there. He was playing for the Globetrotters. Or was that the Sioux Falls Skyforce. This year!
He was the best point guard on the floor in Game 2.
Sam Cassell was the best point guard on the floor in Game 1 and he was described as being some sort of combination of Walter Brennan from "The Real McCoys," Chester from "Gunsmoke" and Fred Sanford from "Sanford and Son." Which assures you of at least one thing: That basketball writers don't read much classic literature.
And Payton hardly is the classic defensive-oriented point guard the Lakers thought they were getting. This excuse-making for Payton is getting ridiculous. Yes, it's Shaq's and Kobe's team. And, yes, the triangle offense takes some getting accustomed to. And, yes, Payton has never played with a great post man before. And, yes, it's discouraging being the fourth option. But at least he can do as much as Derek Fisher on occasion.
Hey, that was a nice out-of-bounds pass to Fisher for the point-oh-four miracle in Game 5 against the Spurs. But what's the deal with Payton? Could he really be this bad?
He was signed by the Lakers in the summer to be a piece. No one wanted the old Gary Payton, although they didn't bargain for one this old. They just told him to come and play defense. They knew he wasn't the player he once was, so just concentrate on shutting down the other team's playmaker -- make it more difficult for teams to run its offense. OK, he's not The Glove anymore. Mittens are OK. They still provide a covering. Lock someone down.
Phil Jackson's offense never needed a true point guard, anyway. It pretty much starts after half court, especially because O'Neal and Malone aren't going to run anyway. If you've got a fast break, take it. But set up, drop the ball in, slide along the baseline to the opposite corner. Circle back around to maybe take a jumper. Don't worry. Shaq and Kobe will take care of the rest. Just be ready to get back on defense.
Tony Parker carved Payton up pretty good in the first two games against the Spurs, although O'Neal didn't help by playing casually on the pick and roll. But the Lakers came to Payton's rescue when they collapsed into the lane and left the perimeter open. Fortunately for them, Hedo Turkoglu became a turkey and Bruce Bowen shot himself out of the game. Shaq and Kobe did the rest.
They carried the Lakers in Game 1 against the Timberwolves as well, but there were some worrisome signs.
Cassell could barely run and couldn't finish the game. He had to sit out the fourth quarter. Still, he had 16 points, eight assists and just one turnover. Payton had seven points and got to the free-throw line once for two shots.
Cassell couldn't go more than a few seconds in Game 2, so in came Martin, who hadn't played the last three playoff games, who had bounced around the NBA for years, playing this year with Magic Johnson's touring team and in the CBA. He stuck with the Timberwolves after a pair of 10-day contracts.
He was terrific. He had 15 points and six assists and didn't commit a turnover.
Gary? Eight points and one assist. One turnover and no free throws.
And this was a game with a chance. Malone had early foul trouble in the second quarter and didn't play much, and Shaq was in one of those funks of his when he lets himself be defended. But the Timberwolves didn't pay much attention to Payton. It looked like they had four players guarding O'Neal and three chasing Bryant.
"We're trying to get the ball out of Shaq's and Kobe's hands as much as possible," Latrell Sprewell said. "Anytime they have the ball we want to trap them and have them move the ball."
Yes, we know Payton is not a classic standstill jump shooter to fit the offense. That's why Fisher is a better fit and has come up bigger in the playoffs. And we know the middle gets clogged with Shaq and all those help defenders in there.
But there are opportunities. Don't tell me Payton can't beat a limping Sam Cassell or Darrick Martin off the dribble and make something happen for himself or a teammate. He has six assists in the first two games. Martin came off the bench after not playing for a week or so and got six assists. And it's not like it's some sort of citadel Payton is attacking. It's Ervin Johnson and Mark Madsen, both with an eye toward Shaq. Do something, Gary. Cause some turnovers, disrupt the opponent's offense, mop the sweat drops off the floor.
Payton can't blame Jackson, though I assume he does. Jackson has relaxed the triangle to accommodate Payton and Malone, and he has the team run it less and uses other actions more frequently.
So just what is Payton doing out there?
He's playing big minutes, averaging 35.5 in this series. He's shooting 5-of-17. He's averaging 7.5 points. He's averaging three assists. The opposing point guards, one injured and one out of the minor leagues, are averaging 15.5 points and seven assists after two games.
Payton did snarl meanly at Wally Szczerbiak, though.
No one is blaming Payton. If the Lakers lose it won't be his fault, and if the Lakers win it won't be because of him. But they certainly could use his help. The opportunities are there, if not for greatness and glory, for excellence and support. Where's Gary?
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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