Kobe, Lakers bench falter
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Shaquille O'Neal performed the way he did in three previous NBA Finals, when he won the MVP award each time.
His teammates played like the Clippers.
It added up to a depressing loss for the Lakers.
O'Neal had 36 points and 20 rebounds while sitting out only 36 seconds Sunday night, but the Detroit Pistons beat the Lakers 88-80 for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven finals. Game 5 is Tuesday night at The Palace.
"Give credit to the Pistons," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "They handled the adversity of Shaq's great game, kept their composure and found a way to get to the foul line."
O'Neal shot 16-of-21 in dominating the inside and was 4-of-11 from the foul line.
Otherwise, the Lakers shot a miserable 17-of-57 including 3-of-16 from 3-point range.
"We let one slip away," O'Neal said. "We came out real aggressive and we had it, just in the fourth quarter we made some mistakes and the fouls went in their favor."
The Pistons made 10 of 15 free throws in the final period and 28-of-41 overall.
The Lakers were 11-of-22 from the line.
"It's hard to beat a team when they go to the foul line 20 more times than you do," O'Neal said. "But we really can't dwell on that now. We still had major opportunities to win the game.
"We had too many ill-advised shots, we had too many turnovers. I know that we can all play better. We haven't played well yet."
Los Angeles' logical plan for Game 5 is to try and get the ball to O'Neal even more.
"I've had seven years of throwing the ball into Shaq -- he's a huge target," teammate Rick Fox said. "We have to work on getting the ball into him -- not just throwing it, but completing it, because he should have had 50 tonight."
While O'Neal was at his best, Kobe Bryant wasn't anywhere close for the second straight game, shooting 8-of-25 while scoring 20 points.
In the Lakers' lone win, Bryant shot 14-of-27 including a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. In their three losses, he's 22-of-65.
"They are just running at me," Bryant said. "If I get a step, they are just coming. Shots didn't fall. They are just running guys over every time I have a penetration."
Bryant had only two assists and no rebounds and shot just two free throws -- with 2:08 remaining and the Lakers trailing 83-72. He committed three turnovers.
History says the Lakers are finished, since no team has ever overcome a 3-1 deficit to win the finals.
But since 1985, when the current 2-3-2 format went into effect, no home team has won the middle three games. And that's what the Pistons are trying to do. They've won 20 of their last 23 games at The Palace.
"I think everybody is a little down right now," Bryant said. "By any means necessary, we have to win the next game and then go from there."
The Lakers got only 21 minutes from Karl Malone, playing with what he believes to be a torn ligament in his right knee. He came out of the game for good with 7½ minutes left in the third quarter having scored two points and taken five rebounds.
"You just deal with the cards that are dealt," a downcast Malone said, adding he knew he was finished for the night when he came out.
O'Neal and Bryant were the only Lakers to score in double figures for the fourth straight game. The reserves contributed only nine points, shooting 3-of-17.
"They are outhustling us," said Gary Payton, who shot 4-of-11 and scored eight points. "They are getting all the calls. It's getting frustrating, but we have to play through it."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press