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Change of the Season?

Veterans of title teams ask Jackson in private meeting to use them together

June 13, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Phil Jackson stood in a dingy bathroom at the Palace, the Lakers in three games of the NBA Finals fortunate to win one, and he listened to the proposal that could change the course of a season, perhaps a career.

Before him, the five Lakers who remained from their three championships together -- Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Devean George -- asked for their season back.

Their plea: Bench an ailing Karl Malone, bench an ineffective Gary Payton and play those five together in tonight's Game 4 against the Detroit Pistons, Fox at power forward, Fisher at point guard.

Fifteen rings among them and their next title hopes fading against the relentless Pistons, they had summoned Jackson away from their teammates, away from the glare of the Finals, and outlined their plan. O'Neal stood beside Bryant, the two of them apparently in agreement.

When they were done, Jackson told them he would think about it. Then, in a team meeting before the Lakers practiced on Saturday afternoon, Jackson told the rest of the Lakers about the meeting and what he was considering.

An hour later, Jackson leaned against a cinder-block wall and recounted the bathroom stall summit. His offense fractured by the Piston defense, the Lakers had scored 68 points in Game 3, the triangle burdened by injury and misreads. Payton appeared more disconnected than ever and Malone was hampered by another knee ligament injury.

The answer, Jackson was reminded, might be to reach back to the three-peat, to summon the players and the execution that made them champions before. And Jackson said maybe.

"They harassed me, took me in the toilet to have a private conference," he said. "They're asking for more of an opportunity to perform the wizardry of the triangle under the auspices of their talent. They're afraid guys don't have the kind of experience with it to operate under this kind of pressure."

Jackson and his coaching staff had made dramatic changes to the offense in earlier series against the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves. They initiated the offense more through pick-and-rolls, giving triangle rookies Payton and Malone roles that were more familiar.

The Pistons have stopped nearly everything, however. Bryant scored off some pick-and-rolls in overtime of Game 2, but outside of that the Lakers often have looked old and slow, or indecisive. In a 20-point Game 3 loss, Bryant often appeared frustrated by his teammates' offensive decisions, the ball coming to him in double-teams and moving away from him when he'd posted the smaller Lindsey Hunter.

Now, with the series in jeopardy, they've asked Jackson for a chance.

"I said I'd consider it," Jackson said. "I think it puts us in a deficit position for rebounding, for one thing. But I appreciate their initiative. I have to weigh the benefits of that."

Not only hasn't Fox played a lot of power forward, he hasn't played much of anything lately. A series of injuries -- first to his elbow, then his thumb and now in his neck and shoulder -- have kept him off the floor for long periods.

A lineup change, getting the five players trained in the intricacies of the offense on the court together, would necessitate Fox defending Rasheed Wallace or Ben Wallace, or at least sharing them with O'Neal. Jackson also could start Slava Medvedenko at power forward and run Fox in at small forward.

Fox said Saturday that his lack of playing time was partly a result of his recent injury and partly because Jackson simply had not called on him. Asked about playing power forward, he smiled and pointed to George.

"I'm trying to talk Devean into power forward," he said.

Fisher and Fox long have toiled on the periphery of an offense called three-sided but built around two -- O'Neal and Bryant. Except O'Neal had only 14 points in Game 3 and Bryant 11. In three games, the Lakers are averaging 80.7 points, shooting 41.4% and going to the free-throw line about 10 fewer times a game than they did in the regular season.

"We've got to start looking for execution, that's all," Fox said.

Even without the offensive lapses, Jackson said he'd have to think about Malone's role, given the injury that limits so much of what he does.

"What I've told him is we like what he's doing with Rasheed Wallace," Jackson said. "He's played him well enough so that he has not become a big factor in this series.... [But] his ability to rebound and all of those things, we do need to move forward. As he goes through the series and he improves, he has to make that call and help us out. It's a consideration."

Benching the prickly Payton, of course, could bring a new set of problems. He has been unhappy about his role almost from training camp and has seethed when Fisher played the critical minutes of fourth quarters.

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