PLAYOFF SERIES: NBA Finals; Pistons lead 2-1.
The Lakers will try to even the series and avoid falling into a 3-1 hole when they face the Pistons in Game 4.
“It’s all about us,” Shaquille O’Neal said. “They’re not doing anything that’s putting us out of character. We’re putting our own selves out of character.”
If they get back into character, the Lakers could turn the momentum back in their favor and assure themselves of at least one more game in Los Angeles.
That won’t happen unless the Lakers, who were heavy favorites to win their fourth championship in five years, do some healing physically and mentally with an additional day of rest.
“We’ll make our adjustments, simple as that,” Kobe Bryant said. “We’ll be fine.”
The teams had only one day off between Games 1 and 2 as well as Games 2 and 3, which the Pistons won 88-68 on Thursday to take a 2-1 series lead. Game 5 will be Tuesday and the series will only head back to Staples Center if the Lakers win one of the next two games in Detroit.
“I’ve told this team that we have to go back with a victory from these three games in Detroit. That’s all we came to do is go back with a victory and bring it back to L.A.,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
O’Neal’s unhappiness with his number of touches is among the issues facing the Lakers. Another big one is the knee injury to Karl Malone, who was limited to 18 minutes in Game 3.
Derek Fisher and Devean George also have been slowed by injuries, but what may be of greater importance to Los Angeles than getting healthy is simply showing as much energy and desperation as Detroit has displayed.
“It seems like their desire to be in this position to be champions is greater than ours at this point,” Fisher said.
Los Angeles again was stymied by Detroit’s suffocating defense in Game 3 and posted the lowest point total in the team’s storied playoff history. O’Neal and Bryant have been the only Lakers to score in double figures in any game of this series, and even they were ineffective Thursday.
That led to another public disagreement between the two superstars.
O’Neal, whose career finals average of nearly 34 points is second in league history to Rick Barry’s 36.3, had the lowest-scoring performance of his five NBA Finals with 14 points. He took 14 shots from the field and attempted two free throws—his fewest since April.
“It gets very frustrating sometimes,” O’Neal said. “I’ve always said that if a team is going to play me single coverage, we’ve got to make them pay. And we haven’t made this team pay yet.”
The defense of Ben Wallace and Elden Campbell has been solid on O’Neal, but the Lakers often just haven’t gotten the ball to the superstar center in the post. While that has annoyed O’Neal, Bryant does not see it as a problem.
“We’re not worried about getting him more touches,” Bryant said. “We’re worried about winning the game and getting everybody better looks.”
Bryant was slowed for the second time in three games by the defense of Tayshaun Prince and the swarming Pistons’ defense, getting held to a playoff-low 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting. He’s gone 14-of-40 in the Lakers’ two losses, compared to 14-for-27 in Game 2 when he scored 33 points and hit the tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation.
Prince’s size, wingspan and energy has caused problems for Bryant.
“I try not to let him catch the ball in spots where he likes to get the ball,” Prince said. “When he does get it, I just try to keep him in front of me, and make him take tough shots.”
The play of Prince, along with the interior work of Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, has keyed Detroit’s terrific defense in this series. In Games 1 and 3, the Lakers averaged 71.5 points on 38 percent shooting.
Defense is not the only reason Detroit is halfway to pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history. The Pistons have grabbed six rebounds more per game and they’ve gotten to the free throw 91 times, compared to 56 for the Lakers.
Now Detroit is looking to put a stunning stranglehold on this series by putting the Lakers into a 3-1 hole. No team has ever come back from such a deficit to win the NBA Finals.
“We’ve got a game that is probably the most pivotal game of the series, and we understand that,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said. “We’re confident, but we know that in actuality, we haven’t done that much yet.”
Billups is part of a starting backcourt providing the bulk of Detroit’s offense. He’s had no problem against Gary Payton, formerly one of the NBA’s best defensive players. Billups has averaged 22.7 points and 5.3 assists in the series.
Richard Hamilton, meanwhile, has seen his point production and shooting efficiency improve in every game of the series. After being limited to 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting in Game 1, he had 26 points in Game 2 and scored 31 on Thursday.
“We’re hungry. This is the finals,” Hamilton said. “This is not the conference semis, or anything else. It’s a different feel now. Everybody is watching.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lakers - 2nd seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-2, West semifinals; beat Minnesota Timberwolves 4-2, West finals. Pistons - 3rd seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-3, East semifinals; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, East finals.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Lakers - F Devean George, F Malone, C O’Neal, G Bryant, G Gary Payton. Pistons - F Prince, F Rasheed Wallace, C Ben Wallace, G Hamilton, G Billups.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 24.8 ppg and 5.8 apg; O’Neal, 13.2 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 21.7 ppg; Wallace, 14.0 rpg; Billups, 6.0 apg.