THAT SUCKING SOUND
The Los Angeles Lakers are so easy to root against. I tried for the better part of a week to convince myself the Detroit Pistons can somehow prevent Phil Jacksons boys from taking their fourth NBA title in five years. I tried the turn-back-the-clock approach, imagining this is 1989 and the Pistons Bad Boys of Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, and Dennis Rodman are on the verge of sweeping the Lakers of Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. (Heck, Id have taken 1988 when the same Pistons took mighty L.A. to seven games before bowing.) But I couldnt convince myself. Then I watched Game 1 of the Finals Sunday night.
In the world of Automatics, the Lakers are right up there with Bill Gates, Tom Cruise, and John Grisham. They have the most indomitable athlete on the planet in Shaquille ONeal (think Microsoft in sneakers and a tank top). They have a whiny, ego-driven superstar in Kobe Bryant who, despite never setting foot in a college classroom, feels he is entitled to all the world has to offer . . . including, apparently, resort hostesses. (Forget the wedding band on his finger; its dwarfed by the three championship rings.) And now, the Lakers have a pair of perennial All-Stars-turned-mercenaries in Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Unable to lead their own teams to a title after more than a decade of trying, theyve stitched themselves onto the Shaq-Kobe coattails. Larry OBrien Trophy, here we come!
But hold it right there. Sunday night at the Staples Center, Detroit exposed what may be the most ironic fatal flaw in the history of team sports. You see, when the Lakers Big Two are in command of their games (ONeal made 13 of his 16 shots while Kobe scored a ho-hum 25), it creates somewhat of a black hole . . . one that sucks up and destroys the impact of the Lakers Next Two (Malone -- the second-leading scorer in the games history -- scored four points in 44 minutes, while Payton made one shot and dished out all of three assists in his 31 minutes). It would seem this Fab Four can be cut in half by the right kind of opposition. And Detroit may just offer the perfect kind.
With all due respect to defensive basketball, the brand of hoops played by these Pistons is nothing short of hideous, plodding, turn-your-head-away ugly. Their series with Indiana was enough to convert basketball junkies into Calgary Flames fans for a week. Not since the Minneapolis Lakers beat the Rochester Royals (two games to one) in the 1954 Western Division finals had an NBA semifinal series been played without a single team scoring 90 points in any one game. Detroit scored all of 69 points in Game 6 . . . and won. The Pistons shot 33 percent in Game 6 . . . and won. In only one quarter of Game 6 did they score as many as 20 points . . . and they won!
In Game 5 against the Pacers -- when Detroit exploded for 83 points -- they had exactly two players reach double figures: Rip Hamilton (33) and Rasheed Wallace (22). Guarding five players when only two can score is the kind of matchup Don King would welcome. But then Sunday night, Tayshaun Prince emerged for 11 points (hes also the reason Kobe didnt hit 40). And point guard Chauncey Billups compensated for the struggling Hamilton (who was 5 for 16) with 22.
What initially made this series such a dramatic mismatch was the emergence of role players -- at just the right time -- off the Laker bench. Kareem Rush? Whats he doing dropping treys in a series clincher? Then you have Devean George impacting play at both ends while Slava Medvedenko grabs the rebounds Shaq doesnt want. When Derek Fisher is hitting game-winning shots with less than half a second to play, destiny seems to be paved in purple and gold. Those role players were nowhere to be found Sunday night, thanks largely to Detroits role players eating them alive.
The 2003-04 Lakers were assembled with one objective: a championship. Anything less, particularly considering the dramatic financial sacrifices made by Malone and Payton to join the quest, will be remembered as abject failure. Against all prognostications, mighty L.A. seems to have its biggest challenge of the Shaq/Kobe/Phil era. The question to keep in mind as the series further unfolds this week: What good are superstars in the presence of a black hole?