The game was over. The Pistons had won. They were going back to Detroit with a 2-0 lead and three home games coming up, a perch from which no team had ever fallen in the NBA Finals.
But you don't write off the Lakers, this damnedest of all teams. The Lakers die like Freddie Krueger, like Jason on a Friday. When they're flat-lining, that's when they're really dangerous. They're harder to snuff than Rasputin. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant make them so. At the end of Game 2, it was Kobe Bryant.
Detroit had been in front 87-83 as the clock ducked under a minute and the Pistons had the ball. Richard Hamilton took a pass on the right wing, dribbled past Bryant, eluded Karl Malone's help defense and launched a 12-foot floater. It bounced off the front rim and then the backboard and came off.
Ben Wallace of the Pistons had outmuscled Luke Walton for position underneath, but the carom off the board went over his head, behind him, toward Malone and O'Neal, who suddenly became interested in a rebound chance he'd been ignoring, as had become his habit in the second half. Wallace leaped, leaning backward, caught the ball in the crook of his right wrist and went back up for the put-back before any of those three Lakers could get off the ground.
Ballgame. Down by 11 in the third quarter, the Pistons now had a six-point lead with 47.8 seconds left, their biggest lead of the game. Wallace knew it. He trotted down court making muscles with both arms.
Not quite. Bryant tossed up a 3-pointer from just left of center over Tayshaun Prince. No good, but Shaq rebounded, scored and got a huge break when Wallace was called for a ticky-tack foul he wasn't even guilty of in the first place, as O'Neal had jumped into him while going up for his put-back shot.
There had been a stretch there in the fourth quarter when the Lakers couldn't buy a foul call and the Pistons had benefited from several questionable whistles. It actually had me wondering for a moment whether there really is a league-wide conspiracy to make sure the Lakers win the title, as so many readers assure me there is.
O'Neal hit the free throw with 35.9 to go for 89-86 and the Lakers needed a stop. No, but the Pistons gave it to them.
First, Hamilton got away from a double-team trap in the backcourt with a spin move that was probably an offensive foul but would have been a tough call. After a timeout Chauncey Billups drove into the lane and, wide open after Bryant flopped, missed a 10-foot runner. Rebound O'Neal.
Following a timeout, the Lakers got what they wanted when the Pistons switched on a screen, the long-armed Prince getting rubbed out by O'Neal and the smaller Hamilton picking up Bryant. Kobe dribbled with his left hand along the 3-point arc, right to left, juked a bit, then went up for a 3-pointer from the exact same spot where he'd missed on the previous possession, only this time without the endless length of Prince in front of him. Bang. Game tied with 2.1 to go.
In Wednesday's Miami Herald, Israel Gutierrez led his story by writing, "It wouldn't be a stretch to call it the biggest shot in NBA history." I think it would be, especially if the Pistons go on to win this series, but it was a hell of a shot, definitely on the short list of greatest shots ever, behind Magic Johnson's baby hook that gave the Lakers a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics in the '87 Finals, Michael Jordan's dagger for the Bulls against Malone's Jazz in '98 -- which would have been a career valediction if not for that tiresome Wizards comeback -- and maybe one or two others.
The Pistons fumbled the inbounds pass after a timeout and regulation ended, although, as Rasheed Wallace tried to point out, there should have been about 0.5 seconds on the clock after Malone fell out of bounds with the ball. As the Lakers proved in the San Antonio series, that's enough time to get a shot off. The refs ignored Wallace, and the Lakers blew the Pistons away in overtime, winning 99-91.
From the moment Ben Wallace nailed the Lakers' coffin lid shut, they outscored Detroit 16-2. There's nothing more menacing than a beaten Lakers team.
It's amazing what this team can do when it decides it wants to, and crazy how seldom it decides it wants to. How can this veteran bunch look at what happens when they set their jaws and dig in as they did at the end of Game 2 -- overwhelming, blitzkrieg success -- and not conclude that they should do that a little more consistently? How can the jolt they get from the hustle and energy of a good but limited player like Luke Walton not convince them that it's a good idea to play with that kind of fire?
So now the series moves to Detroit for three games. The 2-3-2 format of the Finals -- three home games in the middle for the lower seed -- puts the underdog at a greater disadvantage than the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the rest of the playoffs, I think, because at this level it's pretty tough to win three straight games against the same team, even when they're all at home.
In the earlier rounds, if the lower seed can get to Game 6 with a 3-2 lead, it gets one shot to clinch at home. In the Finals the lower seed either has to sweep the first two on the road or split them and then sweep at home. Otherwise, it has to try to clinch in the other arena, which is a tall order.
Because of that and the body blow they took by losing a Game 2 they had in hand it's tempting to write the Pistons off, but let's not do that either. The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks could teach them a lesson -- actually, two -- about letting the heavy favorite steal a seemingly sewn-up game, then going on to win the series anyway. And with the constantly wandering focus of the Lakers, it would be as stupid as it would be uncharacteristic for the Pistons to despair now.
In fact, it might be the Lakers who should worry because Malone sprained his already damaged right knee in Game 2 and sat for a while. How it responds is huge for the Lakers' fortunes because Malone, insignificant scoring contributions aside, is absolutely their glue, the difference for them between being a championship-level team and a mediocrity. When he doesn't play, they aren't very good. He's day-to-day, questionable for Game 3 Thursday, and if he can't play much the rest of the way, I'd say the Lakers are in trouble.
But then, you never really can say that, can you?
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