AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — In the fourth quarter Thursday night, Karl Malone sat on the Laker bench with a stony look on his face, his powerful arms folded, his jaw methodically working a wad of chewing gum.
His injured right knee stabilized in a brace, he had given the Lakers four early rebounds and five points, but he was finished for the night. His heart had been in the right place, his knee balky.
On a night when men with a lesser sense of duty might not have played at all, Malone had logged 18 valiant minutes through the pain and stiffness but had moved no closer to winning his first NBA championship. The Detroit Pistons had defeated the Lakers, 88-68, to take a two-games-to-one lead in the NBA Finals.
He had provided little help.
The veteran forward was particularly ineffective after halftime, when the adrenaline running through him had subsided and his knee had stiffened.
"I could never really get it warm the whole time," said Malone, who played only six minutes in the second half, when the Pistons pulled away. "You just fight through it. But no matter what happens, when I put that uniform on I've got to be the best than I can be.
"And on some nights when your mind is telling you to do something and it don't respond, it's just disappointing that I let my teammates down like that."
In Game 2 on Tuesday, Malone had suffered the same injury that sidelined him for three months during the regular season but continued playing, trudging through 39 minutes in an overtime victory.
On Wednesday, he said he wouldn't wear a brace on his knee because "I've ain't never seen a samurai with a brace on."
But there he was Thursday night, wearing a brace.
"I said samurai don't wear all that stuff," he said. "They also don't charter Lear jets ... [so] I just kind of bit the bullet and did it."
Said trainer Gary Vitti: "It gives him some sense of stability."
Malone said it was uncomfortable, but it wasn't apparent early on, when he was the only one taking any rebounds for the Lakers. He had half of the Lakers' eight in the first quarter, when the Pistons established one of the themes of the game by beating the Lakers to seemingly every loose ball.
But he slowed down after his early burst of energy.
"You know, he looked like he was struggling out there tonight, I thought, in the second half," Coach Phil Jackson said. "First half, I was content with the way he played. He gave us an effort, not everything worked well for him....
"The second half I didn't think he got loose. He just didn't get warmed up. The game was deteriorating quickly around him and we had to have some pressure up court and I opted not to push him any further than that. We were pleased with the effort that he could give."
Malone was not. After 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz, he signed with the Lakers last summer to win a title, but time is running out. The Lakers trail the surprising Pistons, and Malone, 40, is injured again.
"I just say to myself at times, 'Why me?' " he said. "Why not me? Maybe in a situation like this, maybe I'm the guy best suited for the job. Maybe that's the reason. It's not my fault.
"But I think if anybody can handle a situation and make the most of it, I think I can. I think I've been prepared for that since August, when I lost my mom. So why not me? I just keep fighting and do what I can do."