I'm feeling like a religious doubter. One of the beliefs I hold most dear is being threatened. If this tenet is disproved, I'm afraid that everything I know will be proved wrong.
Fortunately, everything I know doesn't cover a lot of ground, but here's that bedrock gospel: No team coached by Larry Brown will ever win an NBA championship.
On the one hand, the Pistons only lead this series 2-1 after their 88-68 bulldozing of the Lakers Thursday night. As Lakers coach Phil Jackson says he told his team after the licking, it was only one game. And as the Lakers have already shown twice in this postseason, after dropping the first two games to the Spurs and after a Game 2 walloping at home by the Timberwolves, it doesn't pay to leave them for dead, even when you've seen their translucent ghost head skyward cartoon-style.
On the other hand, the Pistons have outplayed the Lakers for about 143 and a half minutes out of 144, and if not for the miracle comeback of Game 2, would be looking for a sweep on Sunday.
And if you doubted what Karl Malone means to these Lakers, doubt no more. Going into Thursday's game, the Lakers were 44-15 with Malone, 23-17 without him. Thursday he was hobbled by his newly resprained right knee and the Pistons had a cakewalk. The Lakers had no rebounding and no defense against Detroit's forwards. They were also helpless against the pick and roll, hence Richard Hamilton's magical return to stardom with 31 points.
A lot of fans looked at Malone's drop from 20-plus points per game in each of the last 17 (!) years to 13.2 this year and concluded that he's been a bust in L.A. Thursday's beatdown should have put that notion to rest. If Malone can't get some semblance of mobility back in the next few days, the Lakers may not even get home for Game 6. That's how much they need him.
If you want to talk about a bust, discuss Gary Payton. At this point, he barely even looks like an NBA player, which makes two such birds in the Lakers starting five, Devean ("Bad Hands, Can't Shoot, No Rebound, Mediocre Defense, Call Me Kodak Because I Must Have Pictures of Someone") George being the other, if I may bestow a nickname.
And let's not discount the Pistons, who are playing well and are a better team than most people, including me, gave them credit for being. They shut down Kobe Bryant Thursday, Tayshaun Prince doing most of the work but also getting swarming layers of help. If the Pistons win this series, it'll be a major upset, but they won't be a team that got lucky with its draw, like last year's Spurs. It would be hard to look around the league and argue for any team being better than the Pistons.
They didn't shut down Shaquille O'Neal so much as benefit from his ice-cold shooting night Thursday. Shaq went 7-for-14, but almost all of those misses were open looks that he hits most of the time. It wouldn't have mattered if Shaq had hit them all, though. Without Malone, and as well as Detroit is playing, the Lakers need a big night from O'Neal and Bryant rather than the customary one or the other.
So I don't know what to think at this point, because the Lakers have a way of stirring awake, and not many teams shut down Kobe Bryant in consecutive games. As bad as they've looked lately, I'm not quite ready to put pennies on the Lakers' eyes, and I'm not not quite ready to abandon a creed I've lived by for many years:
Never underestimate the ability of Larry Brown not to win a championship.
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In defense of Doc Rivers [PERMALINK]
I've been getting a lot of negative e-mail about Al Michaels and Doc Rivers, the ABC announcers for the NBA Finals. Rivers, fired early in the season as the Orlando Magic coach and recently hired to coach the Boston Celtics, has come in for the harshest criticism. One reader called him "Doc (Duhhh) Rivers," and another wrote that he's the worst announcer ever.
I'm surprised by all this because I've been enjoying Rivers. I think he's a sharp analyst with an easy manner and a nice sense of humor. He never plays dumb, an annoying habit of many ex-jock announcers, who will claim not to know anything about other sports when the subject comes up, for example. Rivers happily discussed the Stanley Cup playoffs with Michaels when they were mentioned in promos, and he's talked football with the "Monday Night Football" announcer too.
During the Pistons-Nets series, I got a note from a regular reader in Indianapolis asking if I'd detected "more excitement about Detroit's accomplishments than Indiana's" on the part of Rivers and his ESPN partner for that series, Brad Nessler. Early in the Finals, I got a note about Rivers from a fan rooting for the Pistons who asked, "Is he on the Lakers' payroll?"
Wait, I thought he was a Pistons fan. It seems that Rivers has something that, if you have a rooting interest, makes him sound like he's pulling for the other team. I'm guessing that thing is objectivity. I'll miss Rivers as a TV analyst when he goes back to coaching next year.
Michaels, on the other hand, hasn't impressed me. He's one of the all-time great announcers, and I think he's still excellent doing football. But in these playoffs he's sounded adrift and out of his element. I suspect that's nothing more than proof that even for the great ones, it's a tall order to parachute into a sport at playoff time and expect to be engaging and entertaining night after night.
Previous column: Larry Bird on white superstars
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