AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP)—Oh, great Zen Master, what now?
How do you turn dysfunction into function? How do you unbreak what is so obviously broken? Can this marriage be saved? Is hope not lost?
“Well, right now I don’t think there’s a challenge that’s as imminent as this perhaps since the ’95 season when we had to restructure and remake the Chicago Bulls,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said as his Los Angeles Lakers, trailing the Detroit Pistons 3-1 in the NBA Finals, prepared for Game 5.
Those preparations did not include practice. Jackson gave the Lakers a day off aside from their fly-by at The Palace to publicly address the dueling possibilities of having their season ending Tuesday night in Detroit or continuing in Los Angeles where they’d attempt a comeback that would be unprecedented in NBA finals history.
Jackson wore denim Monday, while Kobe Bryant showed up in a green and tan sweat suit and a white visor.
Dressed for summer vacation they were, although they insisted they aren’t ready for it to commence.
“Understand that history is not necessarily on their side either,” Bryant said. “There’s both sides of the coin.”
Indeed, no home team has ever won the middle three games in the finals since the NBA switched to a 2-3-2 format in 1985.
But no team devoid of superstars has won a championship since 1979, and the Pistons might just buck that trend. A 7-1 underdog when the series began, Detroit was installed as a 3-point favorite to finish off the Lakers in Game 5 and bring the title back to the Eastern Conference for the first time since 1998.
“I sense this team, and what they bring, would be a testimonial of how special our league is, because I think this team tries to play the right way and respects the game and respects one another,” said Pistons coach Larry Brown, whose first NBA title would prevent his counterpart, Jackson, from breaking the record of nine coaching titles he shares with Red Auerbach.
Coaches often say that no game is as difficult as a close-out game. Desperation changes the equation for the team that’s trailing, and overconfidence from the team that’s winning can backfire.
In many ways, the Lakers are like a wounded animal begging to be put out of its misery, and the task confronting the Pistons is to finish the kill swiftly and deny Los Angeles even a glimmer of hope.
“It feels good, but it’s really nothing to celebrate right now,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said. “This thing is far from over, and we understand that.”
If not for Bryant’s heroic 3-pointer to force overtime in Game 2, the series would already be over.
Instead, it’s 3-1—a deficit Jackson has never faced as a coach in Chicago or Los Angeles.
He now needs to keep his team focused on the moment rather than letting their minds wander toward the possibility of a summer of changes that could include his own departure, along with those of Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
“I think it’s the easiest thing to do,” Jackson said, “because there’s nothing else that sits beyond it, really, than just tomorrow’s game.
“Whatever creeps in, any doubts or whatever, you have to put it aside—and that’s how you get there. That’s how you do the job.”
The job will have to include another strong outing by Shaquille O’Neal, a better mental effort from Bryant and a sizable contribution from someone, anyone, else.
Even O’Neal acknowledged that need while also preaching for an opportunity to try to carry the team. Detroit has been covering him with a single defender, and O’Neal has been dominant when he has gotten the ball deep in the low post. Yet the Lakers’ offense also includes another superstar, Bryant, whose freelancing has led to a few no-chance, tightly-defended turnarounds from 22 feet with plenty of time on the shot clock, attempts that have sapped the Lakers’ momentum and stunted their chances to win.
“It’s simple, and if you don’t stick to simplicity you die a horrible death,” said O’Neal, one of the only Lakers to arrive at the arena wearing practice gear instead of casual clothes.
O’Neal was asked if Bryant’s self-confidence had become a detriment, and whether Bryant should have realized by now that he sometimes hurts the team by not looking to O’Neal as the primary option.
“That’s sort of a trick question and I don’t have a trick answer. Next question, please,” O’Neal said. “You’re not going to get me with that, buddy. Not today.”
In a way, perhaps it isn’t surprising that a season that began with so much open acrimony between the two superstars is unraveling so spectacularly on such a public stage.
But then again, their plight was similarly desperate in the second round when the Lakers trailed San Antonio 2-0 before winning the next four games and then dispatching Minnesota in the conference finals.
Greatness must be expected from great teams, great players and great coaches, and no one can deny who these Lakers are.
They make look finished, but they aren’t finished. There’s still at least one more game to be played.
“We have every intention of winning the game,” Jackson said. “We believe that we can turn this thing around.”