It's as big as any shot any Laker has ever hit. As big as Derek Fisher's flip with four-tenths of a second left to beat San Antonio last month. As big as Robert Horry's three-pointer to beat Sacramento in the conference finals two years ago. Bigger than Jerry West's legendary three-quarter court heave to force overtime against the Knicks in 1970 because the Lakers lost that game. As big as Magic's junior sky hook at Boston Garden during the 1987 Finals that propelled the Lakers to a championship.
Kobe Bryant's line drive three-pointer that touched nothing but net with 2.1 seconds left is as big as any shot any Laker has ever hit because they were done for this season without it. The Detroit Pistons, for a second straight game, outhustled and outplayed the Lakers, this time through 47 minutes. They were seconds from going home with a 2-0 lead to play three consecutive games at The Palace in suburban Detroit. You know how many teams have won after going down 0-2 in the championship series? None. And the Lakers looked old and flat out of energy. They weren't coming back from down 0-2.
And then the big stars did what big stars are supposed to do: Shaq scored a basket and made the foul shot, and Bryant dribbled left, rose over Rip Hamilton and drained a three to tie the game and take it into overtime. I'm loathe to say it, and for somebody in his forties it's close to blaspheme, but Michael Jordan rarely delivered any better than Kobe did in Game 2.
Kobe and Shaq scored those six points in the final 36 seconds to tie the game, then every point of a lopsided overtime to win it, 99-91. You don't see these reversals of fortune every night. It amounts to a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to tie after being down four with two outs and an 0-2 count. It's knocking out your opponent in the final 10 seconds of the 12th and final round when you're losing on every judge's card with blood pouring from a nasty cut over your eye. Only the greatest of great players deliver their teams the way Shaq and Kobe did at the end of Game 2, which of course makes their bizarre, melodramatic season even all the more fascinating.
Just like that, the series has flipped. Most folk expected the Lakers to win Game 2, but not like this, not having to come from so far back. "I felt like Richard was right up on me," Kobe said. "It's probably the biggest shot of my pro career. And it's probably the second biggest shot I've ever hit . . . right after the one I hit over Rip in high school."
Instead of wondering what in the world has happened to the Lakers, it's now fair to wonder how the Pistons can shake such an agonizing defeat. "We're crushed," Larry Brown said. "We got into overtime and just sort of lost our poise. That was a winnable game. We gotta bounce back. We came here, should have won two games."
In case you're wondering why the Pistons, with a foul to give without the Lakers shooting free throws, didn't foul Kobe before he shot, Brown said he is opposed to fouling in such a situation. "Too risky," Brown said, adding he believes Bryant is strong enough to rise up despite being fouled and take the shot anyway.
Phil Jackson, recalling two situations when his Chicago Bulls got burned by four-point plays while fouling in such a situation, said the same thing. They're the best coaches in the game, but hindsight suggests anything but letting Kobe take the shot because he's hit them so many times with the clock running down and his team in trouble.
"We defended it," Brown said. "We switched, we were right there. A great player made a great shot. After what that kid's been through this year, more power to him."
The night began with both teams thinking of rather subtle changes. Jackson didn't even try to hide his hand before the opening tip-off. The Lakers had to make changes and everybody knew it. They couldn't have Kobe chasing Hamilton the entire game if the Lakers were to get any offensive efficiency from Kobe. His 10-for-27 shooting in Game 1 was more than circumstantial evidence that the Lakers didn't need him expending so much energy on defense.
Even more than strategic adjustments, though, Jackson was worried about physical and psychological adjustments. Jackson hated that his team played Game 1 without what he thought was the requisite energy output, and was ready to resort to extreme measures to make sure that didn't happen again. Jackson was annoyed that there were "no initiators" in terms of injecting some energy into the team. Why the Lakers need energizing in the middle of championship games seems strange to most of us, but Dr. Phil recognized the symptoms of lethargy rather easily. So in the first quarter of Game 2 he went to the bullpen and got rookie Luke Walton and second-year guard Kareem Rush on the floor. Walton, in his first minute of play, scored on a driving layup, drew a charging foul from Corliss Williamson and fired a pass to Rush for a three-pointer.
And struggling with an injured knee, Jackson stayed with Walton in the second quarter, and his three-pointer put the Lakers ahead, 24-22. Walton is one of those players who probably couldn't be a star, and couldn't be a big numbers producer on any team. But he grew up around the game, much the way Peyton Manning grew up around pro football. And Walton understands the impact of subtle contribution, of blocking out and hitting the open man. And in 27 minutes, Walton made contributions subtle and obvious. He made all three of his shots, handed out eight assists and grabbed five rebounds.
And of course, the Lakers needed every positive play imaginable, from stars or subs, because the Pistons went about Game 2 as if they were playing with house money. Hamilton scored 26 points and Billups 27, including 16 in the third quarter to turn an 11-point deficit into a tight, back-and-forth fight that ultimately produced one of the most dramatic shots in NBA history, and one that crushed the Pistons, who instead of thinking about closing this series out in Detroit, now have to figure out a way to gather themselves between now and Thursday night.