Don't count out Kobe, Shaq just yet

Updated: June 14, 2004, 6:19 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Larry Brown ... wrong again.

Not that he's terribly torn up about his latest misjudgment.

If you'll rewind with us back to Game 1 on Sunday, before all the second-guessing started about how Game 2 ended, you'll recall that the Pistons smothered the Lakers on their own floor, holding L.A. to 75 points and prompting Brown to make a declaration.

"I don't know," he said, "if we could ever defend better."

Oops.

They just did.

They just gave Brown and all of screaming Detroit an 88-68 swamping something to soften the blow of knowing that the Lakers, by all rights, should be gasping in a 3-0 hole right now.

"Well," Brown said to loud chuckles after Game 3, "I don't think we can defend better than tonight."

The Pistons proved their coach right and wrong. Detroit was even stingier at home than it was in Game 1, which Brown never thought possible. That means the Pistons responded beautifully to the crushing effect of blowing Game 2, which is a recovery Brown did predict.

So ...

The debate about Brown's decision not to foul Kobe Bryant -- or Shaquille O'Neal -- at the close of regulation Tuesday has been suspended for the moment. And replaced, inevitably, by a new question:

Can the Lakers recover from the first 2-1 deficit Phil Jackson has ever seen in the NBA Finals?

Or ...

To say it with more of a blunt edge: Are the Lakers done?

My answer is no. The Lakers still need only one victory here to drag this series back to Los Angeles, and history says Shaq and Kobe will get it, even though Shaq and Kobe are pretty much all the rapidly aging and thinning Lakers have at the minute.

You'll hear questions about the Lakers' pulse continuously for the next 48 hours until the Lakers get a Game 4 chance to avenge their misery. The mood, because of the Pistons' suffocating D, has changed that quickly in these Finals. After a Hollywood ending evened this series at 1-1, Detroit and L.A. have swapped places in the Panic Room.

That's because the list of L.A. worries only starts with Karl Malone and his right knee.

Shaq is frustrated. His record-setting run of 21 consecutive Finals games with at least 25 points ended with an unfathomably quiet 14, and just two points in the second half. Shaq didn't hide his dissatisfaction about the Lakers' poor ball movement, either, blaming his output on a lack of touches and cracking: "That's the story of my life, buddy."

Kobe, meanwhile, is exhausted from trying to do everything, against a team more equipped to work him at both ends than anyone imagined. His 28-foot swish in Game 2 forced an overtime that L.A. dominated. Bryant followed that with one point on four shots in the first half and finished with 11 points -- his lowest single-game output in the playoffs in a span of 68 games, dating to an eight-pointer in Game 5 of the 2000 NBA Finals.

Everyone else?

Don't ask.

Through three games, no Laker besides Shaq or Kobe has scored more than nine points.

"We're faced with a heck of a challenge right now," said Bryant, sounding as respectful of an opponent as we've ever heard him.

Added Malone: "Without a doubt, this isn't the script that I wrote. But you got to deal with it, and I will deal with it."

The Lakers' medical staff did manage to convince Malone to slide a bulky brace over the knee, in spite of his protests, but that's the last thing that went right for them. Malone lasted only 18 minutes, and Gary Payton continued to wallow in his funk. That left O'Neal and Bryant surrounded by players Detroit scarcely had to guard at the raging Palace of Auburn Hills, where it already looks as though it's going to be much tougher for the Lakers' young role players to produce.

To finish the third quarter and open the fourth, while Shaq was getting a short rest, Bryant was playing alongside Luke Walton, Slava Medvedenko, Brian Cook and a hobbling Derek Fisher. That also angered Shaq, who called out his coach by openly wondering why Phil Jackson won't give Bryon Russell some time.

Shaq, though, can't possibly expect Russell to make a monumental difference. Not against a Pistons team that hasn't needed a single offensive burst from Rasheed Wallace to dominate all but maybe 10 minutes of this series.

"Yeah, it seems like a monumental task (to come back), but we just need one game here to take it back home," Malone said.

Added Shaq, still frustrated: "It's a very tough challenge, but I think we're making it more tough on ourselves."

Tough on Jackson now, too. Suddenly he's the coach who's misreading his ballclub.

"At halftime I told the team, 'I don't think we can play any worse than we played this first half as far as shooting the ball and executing in the open floor,' " Jackson said. "But we tried hard in the second half to duplicate that."

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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