PLAYOFF SERIES: NBA Finals; Pistons lead 3-1.
Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t think his teammates are getting him the ball enough.
If the Los Angeles Lakers don’t win Tuesday, O’Neal might have a whole new set of teammates to pass to him when he plays his next game.
On the brink of losing a series they were heavily favored to win, the Lakers try to force a return to Los Angeles when they face the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Detroit has won the first two of its three straight home games, putting the Lakers in a 3-1 hole that no team has ever overcome in the finals.
The Lakers were never expected to be in this position, as a lineup with four Hall of Fame caliber players was supposed to be more than enough to give them a fourth championship in five years.
Instead, Los Angeles has been outplayed in every game, and would have been swept if not for Kobe Bryant’s 3-pointer that forced overtime in the Lakers’ Game 2 victory.
To O’Neal, the Lakers have only one way out of their predicament: pass him the ball more.
“It’s simple, and if you don’t stick to simplicity you die a horrible death,” said O’Neal, who shot 16-for-21 for 36 points in Game 4 but wanted even more shot attempts since Detroit was never able to stop him.
O’Neal may not have to worry about his frustrations with his current teammates next season, because he may have an entirely new supporting cast.
Bryant can opt out of his contract and become a free agent, and neither Karl Malone nor Gary Payton are guaranteed to be back for a second season in Los Angeles. Malone has his second knee injury of the season and has hinted at retirement, while Payton has been a major disappointment and would seem likely to be elsewhere next season.
Phil Jackson, who is trying to win a record 10th NBA title as a coach, also must decide if he wants to return next season.
The Pistons’ big decision in the offseason will be on Rasheed Wallace, and he showed Sunday why Detroit will definitely want to keep him.
Acquired at the NBA trading deadline, Wallace had his best game of the postseason with 26 points and 13 rebounds in Detroit’s 88-80 victory. With Malone unable to play his normal defense because of his injury, Wallace dominated him and backup Slava Medvedenko.
“For the first time in this series, he was able to stay out of foul trouble,” Pistons center Ben Wallace said. “I think the Lakers were playing well, but they really hadn’t had to deal with Rasheed in the post before. He was able to get down there and get some guys in foul trouble, hit some shots and make plays for his teammates.
“I hope everybody is starting to realize how important he is to this team.”
Rasheed Wallace’s strong game gave the Lakers a third player to worry about. They have been unable to control Detroit’s backcourt of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, who are combining for 38 points per game in the postseason. Billups is averaging 22.8 points on 50 percent shooting in this series.
Meanwhile, O’Neal and Bryant have received no help. They have been the only two Lakers in double figures in all four games, but Bryant has really struggled in the last two games against the defense of Tayshaun Prince.
Bryant was only 4-for-13 for 11 points in an 88-68 loss in Game 3, and his shot selection was questioned after he went 8-for-25 in the Game 4 loss.
“I think he rushed his shots a little bit,” Jackson said. “We asked him to be a playmaker early in the ball game. He rushed some shots early in the game where he got back in the second period.
“Prince is doing a good job and they are collapsing well on his penetration. You know, he made some shots a little later in the ball game, but he’s not shooting the ball well right now.”
Without a better game from Bryant and more help from their role players, the Lakers don’t seem capable of keeping the Pistons from a third NBA title, their first since winning consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990. Detroit is also trying to become the first home team to sweep all three games in the finals’ 2-3-2 format.
But despite their poor play, the Lakers expect to force a sixth game, which would be Thursday night at Los Angeles.
“We know we can play with this team,” O’Neal said. “We haven’t played well yet. We haven’t showed it yet. I’ve been with these guys a long time, and they are not just going to lay down. So we are going to come out in Game 5 and give it all we’ve got.”
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 Payton. Pistons - F Prince, F Rasheed Wallace, C Ben Wallace, G Hamilton, G Billups.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 24.5 ppg and 5.6 apg; O’Neal, 13.5 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 21.5 ppg; Ben Wallace, 13.9 rpg; Billups, 5.9 apg.