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Jackson's Five the Usual Suspects

June 14, 2004|J.A. Adande

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Phil Jackson backed down.

Here was one last chance for Jackson to throw a tether to his team.

The remaining core of the three-peat went to him Friday, cornered him in the only private space they could find in the Palace -- the bathroom -- and asked him whether he could go with that championship group: Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Devean George.

He said he'd think about it. Then he told the media before Game 4 that he had a change in store for his lineup.

Then, after Kid Rock sang and flames from the Pistons' pregame pyrotechnic show were extinguished, Jackson sent out the usual starting five: O'Neal, Bryant, George, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

In a situation that called for something drastic, a desperate attempt to vault past that old cigar-smoker named Red, Jackson stood pat.

Jackson, who sounded as if he were closest to sitting Malone, said: "Karl felt that he could give some minutes out there on the floor.

"We had a short chat before the ballgame. I said, 'Go out and try it and see how you feel before the game.' He wanted to give it a try, so we stayed with him and gave him a shot."

Malone even gave the Lakers a shot -- one 15-foot jumper in the first quarter off a pass from O'Neal. But that was about the extent of his contribution. He managed to muscle Rasheed Wallace and goad him into a couple of fouls during the first three games, but the more the series progresses the less Malone can do. Still, Jackson sent Malone back out at the start of the second half, before removing him for good after 4 1/2 minutes and two big Wallace rebounds.

Jackson didn't want to dishonor Malone, whose noteworthy effort with a damaged right knee deserves commendation. And he didn't want to alienate Payton any more -- if that's possible at this point. If Payton were told he wasn't starting, he might have stayed in the locker room without even changing into his uniform.

The veterans understand that to some degree. They know Jackson has to offer some reward to the players who made the sacrifice to come here, even if they might may not reach their objective. But if not at the opening tipoff, at least the group could have played together at some point -- preferably in the fourth quarter, when execution is most important.

Instead, the Lakers watched the Pistons pull away for an 88-80 victory that put them on the precipice of a championship.

The Laker five, who have been through so much together, who might have only 48 more minutes together, never stepped onto the court at the same time Sunday night.

Asked if he was disappointed about that, Fox said, "Yeah, considering that execution is still the issue. But I'm sure from the matchups standpoint, Phil is still concerned about who's going to guard Rasheed. And I guess I understand that. But we're struggling with our execution. The only answer is to put people out there that can execute. Whether that means we're going to be even more challenged on the boards or more challenged in the area of defending some of the bigger guys, maybe. But at this point it's the only thing we haven't done."

When Fox did come in after George picked up two fouls in the first 90 seconds, Fox found O'Neal for three quick baskets.

At times, when Bryant was at his free-flingingest, the other players have wanted Jackson to sit him on the bench and administer a lesson. Jackson didn't Sunday, and Bryant shot the Lakers out of any hope for a halftime lead by going three for 14.

Instead Jackson sat Bryant for more than a minute and a half in the fourth quarter, when Bryant should be on the court the entire time. No matter how poorly he plays there's always a chance for him to pull out some magic. But he can't perform any tricks from the bench.

The only time Jackson looked or sounded like his old self was when he used his off-day media session to gripe about the officiating, to say his team wasn't allowed to play defense as physically as the Pistons.

It didn't work. In a more truthful moment immediately after Game 3, Jackson said the reason the Pistons went to the free-throw line more was because they were the aggressors.

That was the case again in Game 4. Yes, the officials were quick with the whistles, acting as if a bump from a defender coming off a screen 25 feet from the basket was going to alter the outcome of the game. But that's what happens when a team sticks with its offense, as the Pistons have done, and continues to get more opportunities by rebounding aggressively.

It seemed as if the Pistons vaulted into the bonus before the first TV timeout of each quarter. On one pair of back-to-back plays in the first half, they went to the free-throw line twice without even advancing the ball into the frontcourt.

Frustrating calls? Sure. But the truth is that the 41 free throws the Pistons shot still didn't negate the questionable call on Ben Wallace that gave O'Neal a crucial three-point play in the final minute of regulation in Game 2. Besides, how much would more free throws have helped the Lakers on Sunday when they converted only 50% of their attempts?

Tuesday, there's one more time for Jackson and the Lakers to shuffle the cards to avoid drawing a losing hand.


J.A. Adande can be reached at To read previous columns by Adande, go to

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