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Detroit, 6 PDT, Channel 7

Now It's Three for the Show

No team has rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA title, but the Lakers say they're confident they can complete that quest, starting tonight.

June 15, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Only the Lakers could reach the NBA Finals and have the season end badly.

But here they are, still three wins from the parade -- and one loss to the Detroit Pistons from a summer's tumult.

They stood Monday morning in the grime of Sunday night's loss and a three-games-to-one series deficit, too many of them limping to even muster a practice.

The Laker bus pulled into the Palace, the players trudged off, reporters gathered, the players trudged back on, and the bus backed out. Not a single basketball touched the hardwood floor.

Over the course of 30 minutes, it was generally agreed that the Lakers were in some trouble now, that they ought to win when Shaquille O'Neal goes for 36 points and 20 rebounds, as he did in Game 4, and that the only remaining objective was to return to Los Angeles late Wednesday afternoon with more to do than pack.

No Finals team has fallen behind as the Lakers have and won a championship, a reality the Lakers carry on short rest into tonight's Game 5.

Even so, Coach Phil Jackson insisted, "We don't care about the records [of] teams in this situation in the past. We believe that we can turn this thing around."

After the Pistons had held their news conferences, trying not to grin, Karl Malone's knee barely carried him to a podium, though the league was kind enough to assign him the one nearest the bus. He said he'd play tonight if he could.

Derek Fisher, Devean George and Rick Fox continued with their issues of knees, ankles and necks. And Kobe Bryant insisted he was sound and emotionally secure, though he is shooting 39.1% in the Finals, 19% from beyond the three-point arc, and has played perhaps the worst playoff series of his career.

Publicly, the Lakers believed they would win Game 4 and believed they were on their way to doing so, contentedly riding O'Neal. Privately, they believe Bryant shot them out of it, and few of them know what to expect of him tonight.

"You know, we've been playing a certain style all year," O'Neal said. "Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't. We could play either style. But, when I'm not doubled like that, I really expect to get the ball a lot, especially when I'm shooting 65, 68% from the field. I really expect to get it a lot. It is simple. And if you don't stick to simplicity, you'll die a horrible death."

Questions to players and coaches flitted at the edges of Bryant's heavy-handed game, and the answers flitted back.

"I always get frustrated because of this," O'Neal said, "because if this doesn't go right, with me being captain of the ship, I'll probably get most of the blame, and I accept that.

"In order for it to go down like that, I would like to have it every time. But, we still just need to continue to play team ball. Everybody has to step up and everybody has to want it [tonight]." Asked, essentially, whether Bryant's confidence sometimes impaired the Lakers, O'Neal said, "That's sort of a trick question, and I don't have a trick answer. Next question please. You're not going to get me with that question today, buddy."

But ...

"I'm a veteran at this, buddy. Can't get me with that, buddy. Not today."

The broader picture has to do with Bryant's pending free agency and what effect these final days will have on it, his most recent memory perhaps being a brooding O'Neal and teammates begging that Bryant defer to O'Neal.

Tonight could be their final game together, the last time they'll stand on a court with a common goal. Or, it could be another of their moments of purpose over pettiness, the potential of which shines from three championship trophies.

For now, they'd all be pleased just to box out a little more, to get a few calls, to give O'Neal a little help from the perimeter.

"I think our shooting can be better," Jackson said. "I think our decisions and choices of shots, particularly Kobe's, could be better.... And I think then we'll be a little better off."

Through four games, the Pistons have shot 54 more free throws than the Lakers and taken 26 more rebounds, most of the latter discrepancy on the offensive side.

The Lakers haven't stopped Chauncey Billups and suddenly can't stop Richard Hamilton or Rasheed Wallace, either, so the Palace gets louder and the Pistons get surer and the Lakers get closer to things they don't want to think about.

"We don't have a choice," Bryant said. "We've got to win. We've got to get it done. I think we came up here, the best-case scenario was to get three.... The worst possible scenario is, you drop all three of these, but I don't think that's going to happen."

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