Pistons let Lakers crawl out of hole

Updated: June 9, 2004, 4:59 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- It is not enough to make all of the experts look stupid and force us to choke on our Leastern Conference jokes and prove to the world that these NBA Finals will be better than anyone imagined.

It is not enough when the Detroit Pistons, who had already achieved all that after one game, know they should have the Lakers toasted by now.

Kobe Bryant
Getty ImagesThe Pistons didn't foul Kobe Bryant at the end of regulation -- to avoid a four-point play.

It is not enough when the Pistons have a six-point lead in Game 2 and only 48 seconds to tick off before seizing a virtually impenetrable 2-0 lead. On the road.

It is impossible to sugarcoat the opportunity lost when your club has only two team fouls entering the final minute of regulation ... and the next one your team takes is when Shaquille O'Neal is finishing a gimme layup, setting Shaq up for a three-point play ... and then Kobe Bryant goes untouched on a potentially series-turning triple with 2.1 seconds to go.

"We're crushed," Detroit's Larry Brown confirmed, admitting the hurt instead of covering it up, before the heart-on-sleeve losing coach dragged his players onto a plane for a long flight home.

"Everybody's in that locker room down," Brown continued.

Added Tayshaun Prince: "Obviously, it's devastating for a situation like this to happen."

That's because there can't have been many 1-1 series scorelines in playoff history that feel as empty for the road team as this one feels now for the Pistons. Detroit was less than a minute away from making me and a whole country full of media know-it-alls ingest dirt -- Ric Bucher is pretty much the only guy I know who put a Pistons pick on paper -- by shoving the Lakers in a hole that has never been escaped.

Never before has a Finals team recovered from losing the first two games at home, and L.A. wasn't coming back from two losses at Staples Center to be the first. Not with Karl Malone in peril for the rest of the series with his knee in its December condition.

Instead ...

The Pistons have to go to the Palace now and impress us all far more than they did here.

They have to recover from what they squandered and win at least two of the dreaded three middle games, knowing no home team in Finals annals has ever won all three of the middle games, and then win once more at Staples.

They have to overcome the devastation of knowing they had L.A. buried and bound for a messy summer breakup until the fatal, final minute.

"We just didn't finish it," said Pistons backup guard Lindsey Hunter.

Said starter Chauncey Billups: "We had them on the ropes. There's no ifs, ands or buts. We had them on the ropes and they got out."

Brown was quick to note that these same Pistons recovered from a triple-overtime loss at home to New Jersey in Game 5 of the second round. He reminded his skeptical audience that Detroit won Game 6 in Jersey, when the Nets had a chance to clinch, and then routed the reigning two-time conference champs in Game 7.

The Lakers, mind you, ain't the Nets.

For all of its own problems, and L.A. still has plenty in this series, it's a group that counters a lack of depth by submitting miracle after miracle. Bryant's shot doesn't come close to Derek Fisher's turn-and-heave in the San Antonio series for degree of difficulty, but the pressure riding on it was arguably greater ... especially since Bryant was a mere 4-for-28 on fourth-quarter 3s in the playoffs before swishing this one.

"I was waiting for them to foul," Bryant said afterward, digging his knife in a little deeper.

The solace for the Pistons, again, is that the Lakers aren't exactly rolling. Billups has outscored Gary Payton by a tidy 49-5 so far. Phil Jackson, furthermore, agreed before the tip that, as discussed more than once at Stein Line HQ, it was time to take Bryant off Rip Hamilton as much as possible, in hopes of saving Kobe's legs precisely for finishes like these.

Trouble is, Jackson wound up being forced to play Bryant on Hamilton much more than he wanted, because Payton, who watched the game's final 18 minutes from the bench, didn't fare as well as his coach had hoped. Kareem Rush, so far, is the only other defender Jackson seems to trust against the Pistons' answer to Reggie Miller.

Malone's deteriorating health and Devean George's ongoing ineffectiveness, meanwhile, forced Jackson to surround Shaq with guards, giving the Pistons an immense advantage inside. Ben Wallace looked like he was going to win the game by himself in crunch time, reeling off six late points on putbacks before his costly foul on O'Neal with 35.9 seconds left.

"Give them their due," Brown said, explaining that he would have never authorized an intentional foul on Bryant at the finish for fear of losing on a four-point play.

"Are you allowed to give people their due in this thing? Are you allowed to tell a team that they won a game? They won the game."

The real question, Larry, is whether the Pistons can forget it and start drilling the Lakers anew on Thursday night. L.A. suddenly looks no deeper than it did last season, when San Antonio drummed the Lakers out of Round 2. Two games into these Finals, L.A. still doesn't have a double-digit scorer not named Shaq or Kobe.

The Pistons, though, suddenly face a pain reminiscent of what the current Spurs had to confront after Fisher beat them at the buzzer with that famous four-tenths of a second left. Brown admits that his good buddy Gregg Popovich is still struggling to get over that one.

"You've gotta forget it," Corliss Williamson said.

"How do you think we're going to respond?" Rasheed Wallace asked. "Do you think we're just going to lay down?"

Lay down? Hell, no.

But recover? Really recover?

If the Pistons do, these amazing Finals are going to get somehow tastier.

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

ALSO SEE