Lakers need more efficiency on D

Updated: June 7, 2004, 4:53 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- There were no sprints back to the basket to chase and erase a breakaway layup. There were no rejections at the rim with a dunker on the verge of slamming through.

Detroit's Tayshaun Prince didn't block even one shot Sunday night.

Probably because he was too busy taking a swat at the other team's ego in a different way.

Prince's long arms and Rip Hamilton's fleet feet combined to convey a fairly loud message to Phil Jackson in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even though Prince's left paw didn't send any Laker shots straight to the highlight reel, and even though Hamilton wound up with more turnovers than baskets.

That message to the Zenmeister: It might not be so easy for Kobe Bryant to chase Hamilton for 40-odd minutes and still dominate the fourth quarter.

My feeling going into these Finals was that the biggest problem confronting the Lakers was not the Pistons' defensive versatility or the presence of two Wallaces or even L.A.'s famed habit of getting overconfident and coasting. In the Lakers' twisted world, you expect them to snap to attention now and win the next two, if not the next three, because they suddenly face direct exposure to peril.

The real issue to me -- which will determine whether what unfolded at Staples Center was just a blip -- continues to be how the Lakers contain Hamilton without a selfless defender like Ron Harper to spare Kobe's legs all the extra work. This became a bigger problem than anticipated when Ben Wallace had the temerity to swish a couple of baseline jumpers, confirming that the Pistons, on this night at least, were quite capable of finding offense elsewhere.

Harper shared the shadowing of Reggie Miller with Kobe in 2000 Finals, when the Lakers started this odyssey that now has them on the brink of their fourth title in five years. Kobe's defense on Hamilton was indeed outstanding in the Pistons' 87-75 victory, but Hamilton is younger and may be even more active than Miller was four springs ago. The exertions involved, as a result, left Bryant close to empty at the finish, when the Lakers needed a serious dose of his best.

Jackson, meanwhile, discovered that his Rip coverage resources are even more limited than he feared.

He doesn't have a Harper, or even a Brian Shaw, to spare Kobe from some of the Rip duty. Bryant lobbied Jackson to let him handle his former Philadelphia-area high school rival, and Jackson consented, but it appears that's because Jackson didn't trust Devean George or Rick Fox or either of the Lakers' struggling smaller guards -- Gary Payton and Derek Fisher -- to try instead.

Kareem Rush also got a turn, but this wasn't exactly the same Rush who torched Minnesota with six triples in Game 6 of the West finals. Jackson didn't like the look of L.A.'s offense or defense with Rush on the floor, either, meaning Bryant pretty much had to be the Rip guy.

Which doesn't necessarily bother the Pistons, despite the obvious impact on Hamilton's production.

"We like to see him have to work," said Detroit's Elden Campbell. "Sometimes that might get [Bryant] going, but we'll take our chances with him playing defense."

Said Pistons assistant coach Mike Woodson: "Rip is not going to get tired, so you better be in good shape to chase him around. But Kobe usually plays the best scorer on the other team, so that was no surprise to us."

Add up the toll of that non-surprise -- checking Hamilton throughout and dealing with Prince's annoying wingspan -- and what you got from Bryant is a 2-for-7 fourth quarter, including back-to-back missed 3s that stunted L.A.'s attempt to mount a late escape.

Not what L.A. needed when Prince, instead of blocking shots, could be seen sinking long, clutch jumpers in the third and fourth quarters -- first a lucky banker from the baseline to beat the shot clock and make it 56-48, and then a swished long ball after the Lakers had clawed within six at 74-68.

And definitely not what L.A. needed when Malone and Fisher, hobbled by knee soreness since eliminating the Wolves, looked as rusty as Jackson expected, combining for six points between them. Which was double the piddly three points Payton chipped in.

Detroit shocked the Lakers by committing only one defender to Shaquille O'Neal, and the Pistons didn't flinch when Shaq racked up 34 points on near-perfect shooting: 13-for-16 from the floor, and 8-for-12 from the line. The Pistons didn't mind because O'Neal nonetheless went stretches in the second half without getting touches, and because no one else but Bryant hurt them.

"They will get better as the series goes on," Jackson said, referring specifically to the hobbled Malone and Fisher.

He could have included Bryant as well, because you can be sure Kobe will fare better against Prince every time he sees him. Chances are, though, that Kobe won't have the energy to be otherworldly against Prince if he's responsible for clamping down on the other Philly kid all series.

"It's an interesting challenge," Bryant said.

Perhaps a bit worrying, too.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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