At This Point, One Team Remains
By Michael Wilbon
Monday, June 14, 2004; Page D01
AUBURN HILLS, Mich.
They faintly resemble a team that might once have been champions. But they're not great at anything anymore. They're one dramatic basket in Game 2 from having been swept out of the championship series, and pretty soon they're going bye-bye, for the season and probably for good. With Karl Malone sitting and Gary Payton decomposing, the Lakers are no better than they were last year when they were dumped from the playoffs in the second round.
All their flaws are so easy to see now that the Lakers are being beaten in every conceivable way by a better team. Yes, Detroit is a better team, maybe much better. The Pistons are quicker, smarter, better organized, more unselfish and better coached. They're going to win the NBA Finals here on Tuesday or back in Los Angeles, probably sooner rather than later.
A posse full of Pistons came to play in their 88-80 Game 4 win, while only Shaquille O'Neal came to play for the Lakers. Who could blame Magic Johnson for being disgusted with what he's seeing from the franchise to which he delivered so many championship titles?
While the Pistons were sharing the ball and working with one another to take a 3-1 series lead, Kobe Bryant was playing the most self-absorbed game imaginable. It's as if he was oblivious to what else his team was doing. Don't let his 20 points fool you. While O'Neal was hitting 16 of 21 shots, grabbing 20 rebounds and handing out as many assists as Kobe (two), Bryant missed 17 of 25 shots, grabbed not a single rebound in 45 minutes and was a nightmare to his own team.
He played as if he had no interest whatsoever in getting the ball to O'Neal; in fact, it's fair to wonder if he wanted just the opposite. Again, no other Lakers player scored in double figures, and come Tuesday night it's just as well for the basketball world to go into summer with the Pistons crowned champions because the Lakers aren't up to anything more than bickering and whining about the refs.
Sometimes, the stress of competition can bring out the best in people, which is what we're seeing from the Pistons, and sometimes it can bring out the worse, which is what we're seeing from the Lakers.
"I think," Richard Hamilton said afterward, "the thing with us is we're really moving the ball. I think guys are really playing together. When [the Lakers] take away something, then we have a second and a third option and that's what we've been trying to do all season and it's really working now."
That's evidenced by Rasheed Wallace's 26 points and 13 rebounds, Ben Wallace's 13 rebounds, Hamilton's 17 points and six assists and Chauncey Billups's 23 points on 7-for-12 shooting. All that unselfishness has led to a 3-1 lead, a hole from which no team in NBA Finals history has ever successfully climbed. And this won't be a historic first, as long as the Pistons stay relatively healthy.
It's going to be a short series after all, but who knew the Lakers would be on the real short end? They knew what they needed to do to even this series and get it back to California, to even have a chance to win: Feed Shaq. Give him the ball every time down and let him do his thing. Shaq couldn't possibly have been any more effective than he was in Game 4. The Pistons had no answer for him. They just took the ball out of the nets after he'd shot and ran the other way.
Yes, Larry Brown changed defenses and Shaq wasn't going to be as overwhelming as he was early on when he kept defeating single coverage. But the bigger problem was Kobe apparently deciding he needed more shots, that he needed to play the way he wanted, that he needed to save the day. Please, whatever you do, don't compare Bryant with Michael Jordan because Jordan would never have sabotaged his team the way Kobe did in Game 4, going away from what was working to do his own thing.
Despite struggling to make the most basic of shots in the first quarter, the Pistons resourcefully and systematically lay waste to the Lakers, particularly in the fourth quarter when Detroit scored 32 points and the Lakers whined and complained like losers and punks. Maybe this is what happens when you cheat the game the way the Lakers did through much of the season.
If Magic thought he could help by lighting a fire under his old team, he was so, so mistaken. Let's face it, a big part of the story these playoffs has been what the Lakers have been unable to do. And while Magic is only a vice president and part owner, 13 years removed from his days as a championship player, he is still the public face of the Lakers franchise, what with Wilt dead, Elgin Baylor more associated with the Clippers, Jerry West running the Memphis Grizzlies and Kareem being, well, detached.
So it had some weight when he said, "I think the Lakers had a mind-set that was disrespectful to the Pistons. [The Lakers] thought it was going to be easy. That is not the case. Unless they come out and play very hard, with the same level of intensity as the Pistons, this series will be over."
One didn't have to guess that Magic was annoyed, and worse. "I am angry," he said. "You have to compete. And we're not competing," he said. "You can just see the Lakers' frustration. No one is welcoming anyone to the bench. Guys are sitting there, wandering off into the crowd, defeated. We've got to get that look off our faces and play basketball the way it's supposed to be played. If not, the series won't get back to Los Angeles. I have eight rings and I want nine. My anger is that we haven't competed in this series. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what the mind-set is. But this is just unacceptable."
Of course, the Lakers' problems are just half the story now, because the other half, the half we should be talking about from now until the Pistons finish off the Lakers, is the way Detroit has performed, they way the Pistons play defense, they way they share on offense, they way they turn in great performances without what one would really call a great star.
They're reminiscent of the Seattle SuperSonics of the late 1970s and early 1980s in that way, a lot of good players performing in concert for a great coach. They've completely dismantled an opponent with two healthy Hall of Famers in their primes, Shaq and Kobe. Even with help from Kobe that's impressive.
When asked what he would tell his players about going for the kill on Tuesday, Brown said he would only tell them to enjoy winning Game 4. And while Brown has never in his NBA career been so close to a championship, one got the feeling he knows he's coaching the better team. Even as he complimented Jackson and the Lakers, and gave them the respect due a three-time champ, one got the feeling that Brown knows his team isn't going to let up or become silly or preoccupied. At some point in every series both teams know which is the better team. And that point came here, in Game 4, Sunday night.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company