The Alarm Has Sounded: Can the Lakers Wake Up?
L.A. Regroups, Ponders Ways to Make Pistons Play More Up-Tempo in Game 2
By Steve Wyche
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page D01
LOS ANGELES, June 7 -- The day after Los Angeles lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons on their home court was just like the day after any loss for the Los Angeles Lakers. There was no panic, at least among the players and coaches. There was no lost swagger. There was no credit offered to the opponent.
"I don't think it's anything they did," Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal said Monday. "It's more about us. It's been more about us all year."
O'Neal said the Lakers, 87-75 losers Sunday night, believe they are their own worst enemy as they get ready for Game 2 Tuesday night at Staples Center. The Lakers believe the loss to the Pistons, like some regular season losses and the defeats to San Antonio in the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals, has served as another wake-up call.
"It has gotten our attention," O'Neal said.
Los Angeles, a heavy favorite just as it was in its three previous title runs under Coach Phil Jackson, has been in this situation before. In 2001, it lost the first game to Philadelphia in overtime before winning the next four to claim the title.
The 76ers won their only game because of an incredible effort by guard Allen Iverson (48 points). As that series progressed, injuries to guards Eric Snow and Aaron McKie turned out to be too much for Philadelphia to overcome.
These Pistons are healthy, fearless and most importantly, pretty darn good. They play a style that is disruptive on both ends of the court.
"You've got to give us some credit," said Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, who scored a team-high 22 points in Game 1. "I don't care who it is and what happens. You've got to give us some credit. We took those guys out of a lot of their sets. Offensively, you know, we hit shots. So you can't discredit what we did."
Should the Lakers convincingly defeat Detroit on Tuesday, there could be every reason to believe the Pistons are like every other team that sucker-punched Los Angeles but couldn't withstand the counterattack. However, there are signs that the Eastern Conference champions might have the mettle to take the Lakers' best shot without going down.
Detroit limited Los Angeles to just 40 percent shooting and 75 points, numbers that might seem surprising until put into the context of what the Pistons have done throughout these playoffs. They stifled teams defensively all season, and only turned up the pressure in these playoffs. That is what they do. That is how they win.
"They play a different style of defense," said Kobe Bryant, who made 10 of 27 shots and scored 25 points in the opener. "They show off pick-and-rolls when I come off down screens. They make sure to chase and corral me with either the opposite guard or opposite forward."
There aren't many Lakers' players or coaches who think guard Gary Payton and forward Karl Malone will struggle again like they did in Game 1 (seven points, 3 of 13 shooting combined). Then again, there weren't many Pistons players or coaches who think leading scorer Richard Hamilton figures to shoot a woeful 5 of 16 and score just 12 points throughout the series, either.
"I've watched them play and I don't think that was a typical Laker game," said Detroit Coach Larry Brown, who coached the Sixers in that 2001 series.
"I don't know how many times in Payton's career or Karl Malone's career they are going to have a game like that, where they really weren't involved a lot. I don't know how many times they are going to score 75 points at home in a playoff game.
"But I thought we played pretty good. We shot 47 percent. We rebounded the ball effectively and we had four turnovers in the second half. We had a contribution from a lot of people. In my eyes, we played pretty darn good. I won't dispute Shaq's assessment of the way their team played. That's not a typical Laker game."
Said a confident Bryant, "We made some adjustments, and I think we'll do better."
One of those adjustments will be adhering more to the spacing and passing principles of Jackson's triangle offense. With Detroit not willing to double team on the ball much in the post -- surprisingly against O'Neal -- passing and driving lanes could surface. Los Angeles also plans on pressuring the Pistons more to force turnovers and speed up the tempo of the game.
Detroit dictated the pace by harassing the Lakers in the back court to take time off the 24-second shot clock, which, in turn, limited Los Angeles in its attempt to set up its half-court offense. The Pistons also milked just about every second off the shot clock before they put up shots, a tactic that allowed them to slow down the game and lull the Lakers and their fans to boredom.
"We won because we made shots, which got our defense a chance to set up and that maybe impacted the Lakers a little bit," Brown said.
Tactical changes won't mean much if the Lakers aren't able to bounce back mentally, like they have before.
"This is a team that I've -- a lot of people have -- wondered what team is going to show up," Jackson said. "I was not surprised by [Sunday] night's game. I wasn't happy with it and we'd like to have a better effort but this is a team that grows in its ability as a series goes on and it understands the territory."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company