The Pistons' all-but-clinched victory over the Lakers in the NBA Finals will go down in history as a major upset, but it's a sign of how completely things have turned around in a week that as the Lakers pounded the ball inside to Shaquille O'Neal repeatedly and stayed even through the first half of Game 4 Sunday night, I caught myself thinking the once-prohibitive favorites just might be able to pull off the upset and win the game.
They didn't. The Pistons shut down Kobe Bryant for the second straight game and did just enough on offense to win 88-80 as the Lakers came unraveled in the second half. Detroit leads the series 3-1, a lead that no team has ever surrendered in the NBA Finals.
And if any team's ever going to cough up such a lead, it won't be to this Lakers team without Karl Malone, who's finding it all but impossible to play on a sprained knee.
The five Lakers who were on the 2000-02 three-time champs -- O'Neal, Bryant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Devean ("Bad Hands, Can't Shoot, No Rebound, Mediocre Defense, Call Me Kodak Because I Must Have Pictures of Someone") George -- dragged coach Phil Jackson into a bathroom before Game 4 to try to convince him to let them start, citing their title experience and their facility with the triangle offense. That would have meant benching Malone and Gary Payton. Jackson considered it, but ultimately went with his usual starting five.
After Malone had two points and five rebounds in 21 minutes Sunday, there's talk that maybe Jackson should have listened. But the thing is, even with Malone playing on one leg, the Lakers are better with him in the lineup than when he's on the bench. Anyone who says the Lakers would be better off with Fox or Slava Medvedenko or Luke Walton or anyone else starting instead of Malone didn't watch Game 4.
To put it simply, when Malone was on the floor, even contributing nothing on offense, the Lakers played the Pistons to a standstill. When he was on the bench, which he was for most of the second half after he couldn't get the knee to respond following the break, the Pistons won the game.
The Pistons' star Sunday was Rasheed Wallace, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds, most of that scoring coming after halftime. ABC's Doc Rivers credited a shoving match between Wallace and Medvedenko, resulting in a double technical, with awakening a "sleeping" Rasheed. Uh-uh. That was a coincidence of timing. What woke up Rasheed was Karl Malone sitting down.
Malone played 21 minutes and sat for 27. By my count -- unofficially, as they say on TV -- with Malone in the game, Wallace played 19 minutes and had seven points on 3-for-11 shooting. With Malone on the bench, Wallace played 22 minutes and had 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting.
It probably doesn't matter at this point if Malone plays or not. It's a question of whether the Lakers want to lose by a lot or a little. Without him contributing on offense, the Pistons can throw waves of defenders at Bryant and let Shaq do whatever he wants. On Sunday O'Neal had 36 points and 20 rebounds. He totally dominated in the first quarter, and the Lakers as usual increasingly failed to get him the ball as the game wore on.
But the Pistons knew that would happen. It has to. As much as Shaq yelled at his mates during timeouts to give him the rock, the fact was that at the beginning he was establishing position right under the basket, from where he can't be stopped, and then as the game wore on and he tired he was calling for the ball 15 feet out. Even when his mates obliged, he's only good from there, not a force of nature.
If Malone were his usual offensive self and Detroit had to pay attention to him it would create space for both O'Neal and Bryant. Replacing him now might marginally improve the offense, but not enough to free the two stars because the Pistons hardly live in fear of Slava and Co. And the loss on the defensive end, as we saw in the second half Sunday, would more than make up for any gain.
The Pistons are clearly the better team in this series. Their victory will be thought of by future generations as an upset only because the vast majority of people, including me, thought differently beforehand. It's intriguing to think what might have been had Malone been healthy for the whole series. But he hasn't been, and now we're in the strange position of waiting for the underdog to collect its inevitable championship.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Chant with me: Show us the game! Show us the game! [PERMALINK]
If I could be granted one wish as a TV sports viewer, it would be that the networks that broadcast games stop trying to get creative with camera angles, especially close-ups.
The people who run the broadcasts all learned in TV school that varying camera angles make the broadcast interesting and close-ups make the audience identify with the players. And it's just plain no arguing about it wrong.
Here's what this way of thinking gets you: As Game 4 was about to tip off Al Michaels was talking about how Shaquille O'Neal had been called for prematurely tipping the ball in each of the first three games, touching it on the way up. And just as Michaels is saying that, it happens again!
Of course, we had to take Michaels' word on that because we were being treated to an artfully zooming close-up of ... Richard Hamilton! A guy not even involved in the opening tip.
We saw Ben Wallace's shirt bound into the foreground of the shot, then everybody stop as a whistle blew, and by the time ABC switched to the center-court grandstand camera -- THE ONLY CAMERA THAT SHOULD EVER BE IN USE WHEN THE BALL IS IN PLAY, not to put too fine a point on it -- we were able to see 10 players and three referees standing around and then starting to walk toward one basket.
Not only were we looking at a close-up that made the play impossible to follow -- there has not been an opening jump or faceoff in the NBA and NHL playoff seasons that has been clearly visible to a viewer of a U.S. network -- we were looking at a close-up of the wrong guy! Even the replay that attempted to actually, you know, SHOW THE VIEWERS WHAT HAPPENED, not to make too much of that, was a close-up of the ball, and didn't reveal much.
It's one thing to be conceptually out to lunch, but by putting its misconceptions to work incompetently, ABC takes screwing up a broadcast to whole new levels.
People complain about announcers more than anything else, but if the networks would just show us the damn game, I suspect I wouldn't be the only one who'd be happy to put up with any old announcer. Stick to that center-court, red-line, 50-yard line, center-field camera, and you can even put Brent Musburger on the mike. That's how important this is.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
"America, America, man sheds his waste on thee ..." [PERMALINK]
I've grown to like the limited, goofy-loser-made-good charm of Kid Rock OK over the years, but I don't know how good an idea it is for him to be singing "America the Beautiful" in public, as he did before Game 4. The last guy to mangle the song this badly was George Carlin, and he meant to do it.
If those backup singers hadn't come in on "purple mountains' majesty," Rock might still, as you read this, be casting around for a key to sing in.
And I've looked at all my maps and for the life of me I can't find "Omerica," but I don't know if I want to visit anyway. "Omerica, Omerica, God shed his grace on thee," Rock sang, "and I will crown thy good with brotherhood ..."
I don't know what that means, but I don't think I want to be there to find out.
Previous column: Larry Brown a champion?
- - - - - - - - - - - -