Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Is the force with them?

Strange days, my Lakers fans. A single three point shot was the difference that preserves the dynasty, at least for the moment. The Lakers lost the first game of the finals at home, and won the second with a staggering improvised fourth quarter and a dominant overtime. Now they go to Detroit for three games that will tell the tale. They need at least one, and could really use two.

Credit the first game to Detroit's coach, Larry Brown, who had them very prepared and efficient. The Lakers had a tough time figuring the Pistons out, and seemed to be waiting for Detroit's nearly flawless performance to falter. When uncertain, the Lakers depend heavily on Shaq and Kobe, and though both of them came through, the rest of the team was woeful.

The second game showed the Lakers ability to adapt, but their Achilles heel right now is injuries. Contrary to early reports, the Lakers now seem more banged up than the Pistons. Crucial injuries to Karl Malone and Derek Fisher have been costly. Both are playing, Malone is clearly limited and Fisher's shot has been off---though he made two crucial three pointers in the fourth quarter, so maybe he's adapting.

Malone is still valuable on the floor, if only for his courage. The real mystery is Gary Payton, who was a bit more effective defensively in the second game, but is still spiritless and sulky. Neither he nor Malone are hitting their shots.

Injuries (including Rick Fox), inconsistent play and match-up problems had Phil Jackson improvising some strange lineups particularly in the 4th quarter of game 2. But ultimately he outcoached Brown in that quarter, and the battle-tested Lakers dominated the drained Detroit team in overtime.

The star of the quarter was Kobe Bryant, who is now has to be considered a favorite for MVP if the Lakers win the series. Not only for his 3 point shot that tied the game with 2 seconds left, but for his determination, going to the basket for shots that no one else can make, and his defense.

But the player of the game was the rookie with the great pedigree, Luke Walton. Son of Lakers great, Bill Walton, Luke energized the Lakers when he got into the game in the second quarter, and again in the fourth and overtime. He scored crucial baskets, made crucial defensive plays and rebounds, but most of all he made plays, and has the kind of on-court rapport with Shaq that Malone has with Kobe. His passes to Shaq and an inspired alley-oop were the difference. Shaq performed well, especially making an absolutely crucial foul shot and three-point play just before Kobe's three pointer. But he has yet to have the outstanding defensive game as he had against Minnesota and San Antonio.

If the Lakers follow their usual script, the need for so many "crucial" plays in the second game will lead to easier victories in Detroit, perhaps with one more lapse. But Malone's injury and Payton's confused and spiritless play are very troublesome.

The difference could come down to character and playoff experience. Detroit really fell apart in overtime, and they must know they've played about as well as they can. They could have a great shooting night and run away with a game, but they have to win three more, not just one. But the Lakers fought through tremendous adversity---they lost a pretty big lead and were down by five points very late in the 4th quarter. They had a terrible no-call on a foul to Bryant that was inexcusable (when does a Bryant shot fall a couple of feet short of the basket except when his shooting hand is hit? You don't need a replay to show that, although that is what the replay shows) and a bad call against Shaq for his fifth foul, but they overcame that. Malone made important contributions even though his obvious injury cost them at times as well. In the end it was their thundering will that smashed the Pistons in overtime. It could be the difference, but it's unlikely to be easy.

Luke Walton will probably get more playing time, and he deserves to, but he's a rookie and they don't get breaks from officials. The matchups continue to be a problem, especially on the boards. They need a big rebounding night from Shaq and Medvenenko. But Luke's energy and ball-handling ability could be very important. Is that enough for the force to be with them? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Turns out that Payton is playing with physical problems as well. So, hours before tipoff of game 4, after the Lakers played probably the worst playoff game in their recent history (although they had some bad ones against Sacramento, too, a few years back, a prediction for the outcome of the finals: Lakers in 6.

DOWNDATE Did I say six games? Seven---I meant seven games.

But while it is still possible, the way they lost the 4th game is not encouraging. Whatever happens, the Hollywood ending isn't likely to be there. Karl Malone is completely ineffective with his injury. Finger-pointing has begun among the LA Times sportswriters---one blaming Kobe for not passing enough to Shaq (Kobe did have another bad game shooting), another blaming Phil Jackson for not heeding the request of his 5 former champions and starting the old lineup of Fox, Fisher, Shaq, Kobe and George.

Whatever the reason for the meltdown, if the Lakers don't win the championship, the chances that this team would return intact---which seemed likely a week ago---is about zero. If they lose, the Shaq v. Kobe noise will drive at least one of them out of LA, Malone will retire, Payton will be gone, and other veteran players will probably go, as a new team is built around whatever star remains (if any) and the most promising young players, Luke Walton and Kareem Rush. The end of an era could come as soon as Tuesday. (Which I'm sure for some of my regular readers, won't be soon enough...)

Last Date
There was no Hollywood ending after all, at least for the Lakers. No championship for Karl Malone, whose knee was so bad he didn't suit up for the final game---his injury was the most crucial of many---and he will consult his doctors before the probable decision to retire. No record-breaking tenth championship for coach Phil Jackson, who said there was only a very slight chance he would be back. In the next month--maybe even before the Dems have a VP candidate---the shape of next year's Lakers will be clearer: either almost completely different (no Jackson, Malone, Fisher (free agency), Fox (retires), Grant (retires), Kobe (free agency, but he could return anyway) or surprisingly intact, ready for one more shot (hopefully, without Gary Payton.) Who knows how much ego got in the way, or why Kobe had such a run of poor shooting games...But it says something that every one of the players apologized to Malone for not getting him his championship. Malone said he was disappointed but didn't regret playing for the Lakers this year---he really bonded with this team.

But it was a Hollywood week for Detroit, becoming the first team without home court advantage to win their three home games, and the championship. They played a stellar game, confident that the Lakers couldn't match them, especially with Malone out and Shaq playing on two days rest. The Lakers only hope was that the Pistons would come out flat, and Kobe and other players would catch fire. Instead it was Detroit shooting the high percentage, and both Kobe and Shaq were gracious in defeat, giving Detroit their due as playing a better series and deserving the championship. They were also gracious about each other and Phil Jackson, so all options remain open, and pretty much up to the Lakers management. Then of course the really big decision---who do I root for next year?

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