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NBA FINALS: LAKERS 99, DETROIT 91 | Mark Heisler /

Pistons Go From Crusher to Crushed

June 09, 2004|Mark Heisler

I forget, who's the underdog in this series?

When Detroit beat the Lakers in Game 1, everyone seemed to have the same reaction: The Pistons are really in trouble now.

After all, the Lakers were still the Lakers and the Pistons were still just the Pistons. Laker Coach Phil Jackson had lost the opener in the Finals twice before and both times, with the Bulls in 1991 and the Lakers in 2001, his teams swept the next four games.

Jackson won Game 2, all right, but not the way everyone thought he would. The Pistons outrebounded his looking-older-by-the-day Lakers, 20-10, in the second half, beating them to one loose ball after another. The Pistons led by six points with 36 seconds left in regulation.

Of course, with the beanstalk seemingly chopped halfway through, the Pistons lost, which was hardly what they were expecting at that giddy point. Now the teams will have but one day off before Thursday's Game 3 in Auburn Hills for the old Lakers to rest and the young Pistons to mend their broken hearts.

"You know, we're crushed," said Coach Larry Brown. "I mean, shoot, we had a wonderful game. And everybody's in that locker room down. But we lost in triple overtime to New Jersey, had to go up there and win [Games] 6 and 7 ...

"We've just got to bounce back. We came here, should have won two games, gave ourselves a hell of a chance. I was so proud. We were out of the game, came back in the game, got control ...

"They [Lakers] did some really neat things as a team and got a win out of this, so give them their due. Are you allowed to give people due in this thing? Are you allowed to tell a team they won the game? They won the game."

Of course, it was Brown's Philadelphia 76ers that Jackson's Lakers won four in a row from after losing the 2001 opener, so Brown came ready Tuesday night.

"A lot of my players called me from Philly, kind of reminding me what kind of went on after we won Game 1," he said before the game.

"I went on the back of the bus after this Game 1 and told them, you know, we had won a tough Game 1 [with the 76ers] and then kind of felt pretty proud of ourselves and then lo and behold, Phil got them ready, they won four straight.

"And they all looked at me and said, we're not the same team.

"I said, 'Well, that's not what I'm worried about. You've got the same coach.'"

Lo and behold, the Lakers moved into an 11-point third-period lead, as everyone expected. Then, as few expected, the Pistons started posting up Rasheed Wallace on the smaller, wounded Karl Malone, opening up the floor for Chauncey Billups, who torched Gary Payton and Co. for another 27 points.

When the Pistons missed, they just got the rebound and put it back up. The Lakers went the last 5:18 of the fourth quarter without getting a defensive rebound.

In the end, it came down to Kobe Bryant making one of the great shots in Laker history to force overtime, and Brown was asked repeatedly why they hadn't fouled Bryant, or Shaquille O'Neal, who had the ball first, or anyone.

"He [Bryant] is so athletic, he's going to go up and shoot it anyway," Brown said. "I can just think about a four-point play.... I thought about it, if they threw it inside, if Shaq gets it, put him on the line.

"We switched. We were right there ... and he made a great shot. The guy, I think, was 0 for 4 from three going in there, right? That's why he's so special.

"And after what that kid's been through all this year, you know, more power to him. He's a great, great young man and the way he conducts himself on the court and the way he plays this game makes me feel kinda good I'm part of it."

Of course, there's also the matter of Bryant's guilt or innocence that has yet to be determined on a pending charge of sexual assault, but in the NBA, he still rules.

Jackson said afterward he didn't think his old guys had a problem with energy.

"I just think we didn't react to the ball," he said.

That's a peculiar thing to forget. It's that same round, orange thing they've always played with. Assuming they have enough gas left in their tanks, they'd better turn it up if they don't want to see how many miracles Bryant is capable of in succession.

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