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Pistons' Youth Helps Them Heal Quickly

June 11, 2004|Mark Heisler

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Fee, fi, fo, fum, they smell the blood of some Californians.

Not that the Lakers aren't doing so well in the NBA Finals, but one fewer Kobe Bryant miracle, or one more Detroit foul, and the Pistons might be going for the sweep Sunday.

"We know we're playing against a great team," said Chauncey Billups after they walked on the Lakers, 88-68, to take a 2-1 lead in the series. "We just don't want to let them get any momentum.

"We think we're a great unit. We play together. We know they've got some great individual players who are almost unstoppable one-on-one. But for us, we just got a great unit."

The really bad news for the Lakers is the Pistons also have a younger, healthier unit.

For their part, the Lakers started the Finals with "savvy veterans," but three games in, they just look "old."

Karl Malone, 40, is trying to play hurt.

Gary Payton, 35, disappeared weeks ago and has apparently been replaced by a mannequin. Once called "the Glove," he's now known as "the Pot Holder."

Shaquille O'Neal, 32, had 15 rebounds in the last two games, and the Lakers were beaten on the boards, 97-77.

Coach Phil Jackson, who was supposed to be closing in on his 10th title, the one that would drop Red Auerbach into second place, is stuck on nine. Rather than acknowledge the obvious -- the Pistons are dominating the series with greater energy -- Jackson is trotting out lame explanations while hoping his players can catch their breath and make one last stand.

After the Pistons outrebounded the Lakers, 20-10 in the second half of Game 2, Jackson said his players "just didn't react to the ball," which would have been curious behavior, indeed.

Thursday night, he said they didn't "react very well to the game."

Jackson also said O'Neal, who scored his Finals-lows 14 point with eight rebounds, "couldn't get a break in the second half."

As Larry Brown did with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 Finals, he's single-covering O'Neal, daring Shaq to beat him. Only this time, Brown is getting away with it.

Meanwhile, the Pistons help out wherever Kobe Bryant goes, trapping him when he comes off screens. It worked to perfection Thursday, when Bryant got so few good looks he had to force up most of his 13 shots, made only four and scored a harmless 11 points.

Jackson said this was because the Palace afforded Bryant "a tough background to shoot in." Actually, the problem seemed like it was in the foreground, where 6-foot-9 Tayshaun Prince's long arms kept eclipsing the basket, and in the background, where more Pistons lurked if he needed help.

Prince, asked about Jackson's background theory, answered, "Definitely, I don't know."

That about covered that.

The Pistons, of course, were coming off the heartbreak of Game 2, in which they led by six in the last 36 seconds of regulation, though there was some debate among them how bad they were hurting.

"It's a heartbreaker," said Billups before Game 3.

"Ain't no heartbreak here," said Ben Wallace. "Why do y'all keep asking that?"

Bottom line: Young guys' hearts recover faster than old guys' legs.

As in Game 2, the Pistons got stronger as the game went on and by the end, just rebounded their misses until they made one. O'Neal got his fourth foul after a sequence in which a Piston misfired a lob off the backboard, after which Ben Wallace retrieved the ball, laid it up and missed, after which Rasheed Wallace got the ball and was fouled going back up.

Then there was the play in which Prince heaved up a 35-footer to beat the shot clock, after which the ball went to the floor, the Pistons -- who else? -- got it and Richard Hamilton scored on a layup, was fouled and made the free throw.

Happily for the Lakers, who need the rest, after playing three games in five days, they'll have two days off before Sunday's Game 4. Unhappily for the Lakers, it will be here, as will Game 5, so unless they return to their days of yore, they may never see Staples Center as presently configured again.

"I don't even want to think about it," said Brown in the interview room afterward. "God, you guys -- I almost committed suicide on the flight back from L.A.... I'm going to enjoy this....

"They're a special team. They have a special coach....I don't think they've panicked. I've watched all the playoff games. When I'm sitting here and telling you guys I felt our team would be ready to play, I have no doubt that they [Lakers] will be ready to play. They have some prideful guys and we're going to have to play our best game the next one."

Jackson noted afterward the Lakers are only "out here to win a game," a goal he hadn't mentioned before, that would have once been considered modest.

Now it's looking more ambitious by the moment.

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