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NBA FINALS: DETROIT 88, LAKERS 80

It's a Motor Trend / Pistons take a commanding 3-1 series lead after pulling away at the finish

O'Neal's Best Game of the Playoffs Isn't Enough, as Other Lakers Struggle

June 14, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — It is not the end, perhaps, but the Lakers can see it from here, out over Shaquille O'Neal's outstretched hand, over a trying season that did not prepare them for this.

The Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers, 88-80, Sunday night at the Palace and lead the best-of-seven NBA Finals, three games to one.

No team has ever come back from such a deficit in the Finals, and these Lakers, straining for consistency, searching for Kobe Bryant behind Tayshaun Prince, inexact in the fourth quarter, do not have the look of the first.

Game 5, perhaps their last before a summer in which they'll cope with nine potential free agents and a coach with an expired contract, is here Tuesday night. The Lakers promised to show, to beat back what many will presume to be the inevitable, the underdog Pistons threatening to put them out with something close to ease.

Afterward, the Lakers griped again about the officials, Phil Jackson drawing a technical foul before the game was four minutes old. But while the Pistons shot 41 free throws to their 22, the Lakers left the floor having given up 32 fourth-quarter points, with Bryant having missed 17 of 25 shots, with O'Neal hardly ever missing and still having to beg for the basketball.

"Of course I'm disappointed," he said.

Tough-minded and fortunate and just talented enough to advance from the Western Conference, the Lakers appear to have reached the end against the tougher, more precise Pistons, who Sunday got a combined 40 points from guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton and 26 points from Rasheed Wallace. Before the fourth quarter, Karl Malone's doctor walked past the press table and shook his head, Malone's knee too sore and unstable to go. He played only 21 minutes and scored two points.

"I think everybody is a little down right now," Bryant said. "But the important thing is, we have to win the next game. It's a one-game series. By any means necessary, we have to win the next game and then just go from there."

Clandestine bathroom meetings, a Magic Johnson rant, conflicting agendas, injuries, expiring contracts and the NBA Finals: It must be the Lakers.

The Laker world appearing unsettled again, O'Neal played the fourth quarter holding his shorts in timeouts, his mouth hanging from fatigue. He scored 36 points and took 20 rebounds but alone could not hold back the Pistons, who started the fourth quarter in a 56-56 tie, scored the first two baskets and never gave back the lead.

Rasheed Wallace scored 10 fourth-quarter points and Hamilton had 11, and seven minutes into the quarter the Piston lead was 10, and the crowd felt it, and four minutes later Ben Wallace and Billups raised their hands toward the top of the arena.

"I've been in the other locker room and it's ... " Piston Coach Larry Brown paused. "All I'm telling them is, we've got to continue to try to play the right way and defend and rebound and share the ball. And whatever happens, happens. I think that group can deal with it because they are trying their darndest to do it the right way. So, there's no need even thinking about what no team did.

"They have got a coach who won nine championships.... They have got two of the greatest players in the game that are in their prime. So we can't take anything for granted. That's the thing we are going to talk about."

The crowd was loud and the game taut. The Lakers played from the pits of their stomachs. They trembled at the end, Bryant drawing a late technical foul on top of all of his misses, on top of no rebounds and two assists.

If Bryant persists, there might be four players waiting for Jackson in the bathroom today.

"My shot selection, some of them were good and some of them stunk," Bryant said. "That's pretty much every game with me. As far as getting stuff out of the other guys, who just have to take shots. Devean George passed up wide-open shots, an opportunity to be aggressive. We cannot lose our aggressiveness. We still have to attack this team."

Two days after the bathroom meeting with five core players, Jackson stayed with Gary Payton, who played with some verve. And, by the fourth quarter, Malone stood quietly, his injury having overtaken him. Jackson used a lot more of Rick Fox, which helped early.

"We just asked that in the pressure times, put the five guys that know what's going on on the floor," O'Neal said.

Any chance for Jackson to dictate the lineups probably was lost in the first 90 seconds, when George, hampered by a sore left knee and ankle, was called for two fouls. Fox, who played four minutes in the series and not at all since Game 1, replaced George and had his first meaningful moments of the Finals. He assisted on three of the Lakers' first four baskets and scored on a post move over Hamilton.

Unfortunately for O'Neal, who had 10 points and five rebounds in the first quarter and 13 points and seven rebounds in the first 15 minutes, Fox, too, found himself with two early fouls and left seven minutes later.

Not getting the basketball as often as he wanted it, O'Neal raged against some teammates. At one point late in the second quarter, Derek Fisher actually placed his forefinger on O'Neal's cheek and pushed him out of the huddle, trying to calm O'Neal.

Afterward, he shook his head.

"I mean, it's a big challenge for us," O'Neal said. "The stage is set. Stage is set. So, you know, we just have to go out and want it. The pressure is on them. They have to close us out."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

WASTED

Shaquille O'Neal had his best game of the 2004 playoffs, but the Lakers couldn't take advantage. Some of O'Neal's Game 4 statistics and how they rank with those in his other 20 playoff games this year:

*--* Game 4 Totals Playoff Rank

*--*

*--* Minutes 47 2nd (t) Points 36 1st FG Made 16 1st FG Att. 21 1st (t) FG Pct. 76.2% 3rd FT Made 4 13th (t) FT Att. 11 11th (t) FT Pct. 36.4% 10th Reb. 20 1st

*--*

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