One moment, Kobe Bryant was bailing them out, shifting their fortunes, tilting a championship series. The next, the Los Angeles Lakers were on a chartered plane to Detroit, uncertain if Karl Malone would play again.
By Wednesday afternoon, the glee of Tuesday night's gripping overtime victory in Game 2 of the NBA Finals -- of Bryant's game-tying three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation -- was gone. In its place emerged yet another hoop drama confronting the Lakers: Malone, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, will be a game-time decision for Game 3 Thursday against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Speculation abounded that the greatest power forward of his generation -- maybe of all time -- would miss the remainder of the series and perhaps consider retiring after the Finals. Malone, 40, shot down that notion, and said he would try to play, regardless of health consequences.
"When I consider what is at stake here, if this truly is the last [chance for a title], what the hell am I saving myself for?" Malone said Wednesday at the team's practice facility. "As long as I can play with my kids and do the things I want to do, when this is all over with, then it is totally worth it to me. Just three more wins."
At least one of those victories would have to come on the Pistons' floor, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which has not hosted an NBA Finals game since 1990. The Pistons left Staples Center in almost disbelief after Bryant's shot did away with their comeback from 11 points down in the third quarter and a six-point Detroit lead with less than 40 seconds left.
Yet with the series tied at 1-1, the Pistons can take solace in swiping home-court advantage and outplaying the Lakers for much of the first two games.
The muscle and reach of Ben Wallace and the long, nimble arms of Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton have defensively transformed the key into a mosh pit, with bodies flying and the Lakers unable to execute offensively the way they have this postseason. If there was any question of whether scrum-and-grit Eastern Conference defense would disrupt a superior offense from the Western Conference, the Pistons' play has answered it.
The Lakers need to deal with two quandaries of their own: how to defend 6-foot-10 Rasheed Wallace effectively, if Malone is hobbling or unable to play. And how to bring the Finals back home next week.
Since the 2-3-2 format began 19 years ago, no home team has ever won all three games. The Lakers were the last road team to win the middle three games, doing it against a Philadelphia team in 2001 coached by current Pistons coach Larry Brown.
Malone injured his knee in the first three minutes Tuesday. He compared it to the same injury he suffered in December, which kept him out of the lineup until the spring. The Lakers were 33-9 with him during the regular season and 13-6 in the postseason -- and they did not begin winning consistently again until Malone returned from the knee injury.
Malone has yet to undergo an MRI and even refused the prodding of the Lakers trainer to retreat to the dressing room during the game.
"The last time I went back there I was out three months," he said, alluding to the knee injury he suffered in December. Asked why he has not yet medically determined if there is ligament damage through an MRI exam, Malone said, "What is that gonna tell me? I know me pretty well. If I suit up, I expect to play and have no excuses."
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said he expected Malone to play, but many observers thought the coach was intent on making it tougher for Brown to prepare for the Lakers. If Malone could not play or had to be removed from the game early, 6-foot-10 Slava Medvedenko is the most likely choice to spell him because of his size.
Jackson could also play small ball, using Gary Payton and Derek Fisher at the same time and also employing the services of 6-8 rookie Luke Walton, whose passing and decision-making was flawless for 27 minutes in Game 2. Walton might be asked to guard one of the Wallaces and there is also a possibility Jackson will summon Rick Fox, though the veteran forward has done little during the playoffs.
Either way, nothing substitutes for a healthy and agile Malone, who joined the Lakers in hopes of ending his two-decade-long title drought in Utah. He said he would forego a knee brace if he were to play, adding, "I don't see the Samurai wearing a knee brace, and I watched that movie a lot."
"I learned something from Jerry Sloan in Utah that stuck with me," Malone said. "When you put that uniform on and the guy kicks your butt, you give him credit. That's what I've always been about. If I'm able to do that, I'm gonna go out there and say I'm 100 percent. If I suit up, I will play."
Malone was on the floor at the end of the game, but he doled out dire reports to teammates, friends and family afterward. One of his young sons sat on his lap in the locker room as he soaked his legs in ice. The boy emerged in tears, consoled by Malone's wife, Kay, and their children waiting in the foyer area of Staples Center.
"I don't want to go into what I said to him, but it was very emotional," Malone said.
Privately, the Lakers were worried Malone's pride and his long-held desire to win a championship would get in the way of medical sanity. But Malone was undeterred about possibly suiting up, bum knee and all. Asked if he felt star-crossed, given his injury-free career until this season, he said, "Yeah, I do."
"But I feel if anybody can handle it, I can," Malone said. "I'm stubborn enough to feel like that. Maybe that's why it happened to me. I guess these shoulders are here for a reason."