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Larry Brown Really Fouled This One Up

June 09, 2004|HENRY BIBBY

Henry Bibby has coached the USC men's basketball team for the last eight seasons, the highlight being the Trojans' advance to the Elite Eight in 2001. He was the point guard and an eventual All-American on three consecutive national championship teams at UCLA (1970-'72) and directed the Bruins to an 87-3 record as a starter. He played for nine seasons in the NBA, one of them with the title-winning '73 Knicks. He will serve as The Times' guest columnist for the NBA Finals.


Let's start by praising Larry Brown. He is a great coach who makes great decisions and, even though he cut me once near the end of my pro career, has a fine sense for plays and players.

Now, let's describe how he blew one in Staples Center on Tuesday night.

It was one of those moments writers keep writing about and broadcasters keep talking about for years. As things turn out, this could be the defining moment in this growing-by-leaps-and-bounds thriller. This could easily turn out to be the sequence of events that allows the Lakers to win yet another title when, indeed, Detroit had it in its pocket.

You all saw it. The moment. Pistons by three points, 89-86. Timeout with 10.9 seconds left in regulation, as both coaches ponder the possibilities, play their chess games.

In the Laker huddle, Phil Jackson has it a bit simpler. He has 10.9 seconds to get three points and he has the most prolific last-second hero in pro basketball at the moment -- maybe ever -- in Kobe Bryant. If Brown and the Pistons will let him -- unthinkable but possible -- Jackson wants Kobe to shoot a three.

In the Piston huddle, Brown has the option of making the Lakers make a huge shot to tie it, or to foul early. As things turned out, he decided to not foul, perhaps worrying that he would end up having a foul called in the act of shooting beyond the three-point line, creating the possibility of a game-winning, four-point play.

And, as things turned out, Brown made the wrong decision. A startling one, quite frankly.

Second guessing is easy, so I'll do some.

Brown had to foul. Only everybody in the world knew where the Lakers were going to get the ball. Kobe. Kobe. Kobe. You take the foul there, send the Lakers to the free-throw line, and the best they can do is make two, which is not even guaranteed. And then, once that happens, you make sure that you have your best free-throw shooters in the game and then they have to foul you. You turn it into a free-throw shooting contest in the last five-six seconds. And you have at least a one-point lead.

But the most amazing part is that, in that final crucial sequence for the ages, the ball actually went to Shaquille O'Neal, that noted foul shooter. He was 20 feet away from the basket, no three-point play possible.

And guess what? The Pistons didn't foul him! The Pistons didn't foul him! Sounds like one of those Giants win the pennant! things. And, it should. It might have been that big a moment.

Let that settle in for a minute. Shaq had the ball, Detroit had a three-point lead, the clock was running down. And the Pistons didn't foul him.

What Kobe did is why you pay him all that money. In the pros, you have lots of guys who can make that shot. But none more likely than Kobe. Everybody in the place knew that ... well, except, apparently, Larry Brown.

The Laker escape is amazing in so many ways.

First, you cannot let a team hang around as much as they let the Pistons, especially when you are on the brink of being down, 2-0.

Then, you have Karl Malone obviously playing hurt. He just can't quite do it. The Lakers are used to having Karl start the game, set the stage, maybe by taking a big hit early, or doling one out. He just isn't as big a factor as you might expect; he has to be hurting.

I remember what it was like being in the pros and getting older. When Cotton Fitzsimmons cut me near the end of my career, he said, "Henry, I love you, but you can only give me one good game out of five." And he was right, although I probably didn't agree back then.

The Lakers also got away with working Kobe overtime, literally and figuratively. I am convinced that one of the reasons the Pistons are competing so well in this series is that Kobe is wearing down somewhat on defense because the Lakers have him playing Rip Hamilton. Hamilton is not playing Kobe, but rather getting to rest a lot more on defense. Yes, in the end, Kobe got 33 points and won the game, but that has to wear him down. And when he gets worn down, I notice he sells out more to the jump shot, instead of taking it all the way to the rack.

In the end, thank God for Luke Walton. When he was at Arizona, we couldn't stop him at USC, and what he did tonight was so important. In the first half, he was three for three in shooting and had five assists. That sounds like a 17-point half to me, or 17 of the 44 points the Lakers had in the half.

He just energized the Lakers. I was surprised it took Phil as long as it did to get him back in there in the second half. I might have started him.

What Luke did was what you love to have in a sub. I heard Kareem Rush say the other night that he didn't have a good game because he hadn't been playing much and he didn't have his rhythm. If you are a sub, you are paid to be ready, to have your rhythm.

Luke Walton sure had his, and lucky for the Lakers he did.

Oh yes, and one more point. Remember my axiom. First team to score almost always wins. Well, guess who scored first Tuesday night?

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