LOS ANGELES – The Lakers got Kobe Bryant the ball and got the Pistons to switch and all of a sudden Los Angeles' No. 8 had freed himself from "Prince the Pterodactyl" and got to pick on someone his own size, namely Richard Hamilton.
And so there it went – a game-tying, overtime-forcing, dare we say series-saving three with 2.1 seconds left in regulation. Suddenly the Staples Center was alive, the Pistons were spent and the NBA finals were on.
And there was no question who the star of the show was. Bryant shook off a bad shooting night in Game 1 and some hawkish defense by Tayshaun Prince to drop 33 points and the shot that may permanently swing momentum in the series.
"Maybe," Bryant said after.
For the Lakers, this is absolutely the correct answer. Maybe.
For the first time L.A. appears more than aware that there is another good team in this series. After a solid 12-point loss in Game 1, all the self-centered Lakers wanted to talk about was themselves. After escaping in Game 2, it is pretty evident that Detroit has earned some respect.
"A challenge," Bryant said about what the rest of this series should bring. "A dogfight."
He's got that right. Detroit has proved it is every bit the equal of the Lakers. The Pistons didn't play particularly well offensively and had some dreadful lapses in concentration, but they still had control of this game in the final minute of regulation.
Rather than being pleased with a split heading back to Michigan for the next three games, Detroit was kicking and cursing itself for blowing a six-point lead in the final minute of regulation and letting a road sweep slip away.
"You know," Pistons coach Larry Brown said, "we're crushed. I mean, shoot, that was – we had a winnable game. And everybody in that locker room is down."
They should be. This was the kind of opportunity Detroit has to capitalize on. They had gotten a bunch of breaks. Karl Malone sprained his knee, Gary Payton continued to pout and then Shaquille O'Neal decided to stop going after rebounds and got in foul trouble.
The Lakers really would have been finished if it wasn't for rookie Luke Walton, who unlike some of his teammates, actually tries hard.
"You can talk about my shot all night long but without Luke we would not be in that position," Bryant said.
But without Bryant the Lakers would have lost by double digits.
When everyone else was standing around offensively, Bryant kept moving and fighting and finding a way to score no matter the defensive pressure by Prince. Rather than always trying to shoot over the Pistons' designated Kobe-stopper, he used his superior strength to barrel to the hole. He single-handedly solves so many problems, cures so many ills.
"That's why he is so special," Brown said. "After what that kid's been going through all this year, more power to him because he's a great, great young man, and the way he conducts himself on the court and the way he plays the game makes me feel kind of good I'm a part of it."
This from the opposing coach.
Really there was nothing else you could say or do. Bryant has won three championships with the Lakers but he has never been named the finals MVP, an unimportant but telling award that the truly elite players tend to win. His performance here in a game that Shaq himself deemed a "must win" certainly was MVP worthy.
His three should go down among the all-time great plays in the finals.
"As far as my professional career, this is probably the biggest shot I ever hit, period," Bryant said. "Personally I have to put it second behind the shot I hit to beat Rip in high school."
With that everybody laughed. ("I don't remember," Hamilton, who like Bryant grew up outside Philadelphia, responded later.) You couldn't blame the Lakers for a moment of levity. They had just avoided disaster, just avoided digging themselves a giant hole. But tellingly the laughs were short-lived.
Everyone in purple and gold knows Bryant bailed them out Tuesday. Everyone knows Detroit is for real. This isn't just about what L.A. is doing anymore. This is about a back-and-forth, knockdown, drag-out thriller of a series.
"We had them on the ropes," said Chauncey Billups, who scored 27 for Detroit. "And they got out."
Billups looked disgusted at the very thought of it all.
"But this is going to be a dogfight," he promised.
Everyone is in agreement on that.
- The Lakers