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Now It's Lowtime

Pistons take 2-1 edge when Lakers have their worst offensive playoff game

June 11, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — In lieu of the coronation plans, of thoughts of Karl Malone's first championship and Phil Jackson's 10th and the organization's fourth in five years, the Lakers stood in their tiny orange locker room on a Thursday night that bled into Friday morning and asked themselves for something more like their old game.

The Detroit Pistons had just shoved them from the floor at the Palace of Auburn Hills, beating them, 88-68, and Malone limped away, followed by teammates favoring various swollen parts and psyches.

The Pistons got home, forgot about Kobe Bryant's three-pointer, went back to winning possessions and so lead the best-of-seven NBA Finals, two games to one. The Lakers are one desperate shot, that single two-point-one heave from playing for their lives in Sunday's Game 4, and instead have two full days and most of another to find the energy to get even.

"We're just trying to get one ballgame," said Malone, who staggered through 18 minutes on a torn knee ligament. "And the sooner the better."

As the Lakers mulled their offensive inefficiency in the teeth of the best defense they'd ever seen, as they tried to put Malone back together again in time for him to demand greater effort from them all, Rasheed Wallace stood in the other locker room and observed, "They're human. They bleed just like us."

Only more. So far, lots more.

Hounded for two games by Bryant, Richard Hamilton scored 31 points, 17 in a second half in which the Pistons scored 49 points. Bryant was four for 13 from the floor, irritated more than a few teammates by dribbling into double-teams and turned the ball over four times, and the Lakers' 68 points were a playoff low for Los Angeles.

They were not divided in their inexact play, however. Shaquille O'Neal scored 14 points, shot two free throws and took eight rebounds. Gary Payton had six points. The Lakers were outrebounded, outshot at the free-throw line, 30-13, and had three second-chance points to the Pistons' 16.

"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 it."

On their way to those 68 points, the Lakers half-waved at rebounds, half-lunged at loose balls, half-defended the Piston jump shooters. Malone is hurt. Derek Fisher and Devean George have sore knees, all of the Laker ligaments fraying at a bad time. And so the Pistons are the better team, and also are playing harder, even in their Game 2 defeat. Among the results, the Lakers scored the third-fewest points in a Finals game in the shot-clock era, and their 32 first-half points came within two of matching the Finals' worst first half in the same era.

"Most of it was effort-related," O'Neal said, the Lakers still fighting those demons in mid-June, amazingly.

Malone played. They talked him into a black brace on his right knee, despite the ways of the samurai. He started and played almost 12 minutes and then limped off at halftime.

Jackson saved him for Rasheed Wallace. When Wallace played, Malone did too, for most of three quarters. He did what he could, and ultimately had little effect in the way of statistics or inspiration. For months, when his knee did not have him in street clothes, it was Malone who led them back on defense and Malone who insisted they follow.

Now, his jaw clenched against the pain in his knee, Malone is the one who requires the help, and the Laker offense resorts to jump shots and the Laker defense is uncommitted.

So the Piston backcourt -- Hamilton and Chauncey Billups -- outscores the Lakers', 50-17. So George spends more time lobbying referees than returning to defense. So O'Neal complains afterward of not getting the ball enough, particularly when reminded of one second-quarter stretch in which he pounded Ben Wallace, only to get in foul trouble and get three shots in the second half.

"Yeah," he said of the offense moving away from him. "The story of my life, buddy."

Against the startlingly good Piston defense, the Lakers again looked unfamiliar with their offense and unfamiliar with each other, a bad time of year for such things. With just under 16 minutes remaining and the Lakers behind by 16 points -- they hadn't been much over a point-a-minute pace up until then -- Jackson ran out a unit of Bryant, Fisher, Slava Medvedenko and their two draft picks from a year ago, Luke Walton and Brian Cook.

And, well, they scored the next five points, bringing the Lakers to within 60-49. But the Lakers never would lead, and Larry Brown got his first home Finals win against the Lakers, and the Pistons are two wins from their title, with two home games left.

By late Thursday night, the Pistons had come a long way from their flight home from Los Angeles, when Brown joked he'd "almost committed suicide."

"This is as good as we can play," Brown said.

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