- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — History says the Los Angeles Lakers are finished. The Lakers say otherwise.

No team has bounced back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the championship. But history alone won’t keep the Lakers from their fourth title in five years. The Pistons simply have been the superior team entering tonight’s Game5 in Detroit.

That said, however, no home team has won the middle three games since the finals shifted to a 2-3-2 format in 1985. Detroit won Games3 and 4. And when Shaquille O’Neal was told teammate Kobe Bryant promised a win by the Lakers tonight, he quickly agreed.

“I feel that way, too,” O’Neal said. “Got to. That’s how you’ve got to think, and that’s how I’m thinking all day: got to win.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has nine NBA titles as a coach, tied for most in league history with Red Auerbach, was candid about the importance of tonight’s game.

“Well, right now I don’t think there’s been a challenge that’s as eminent as this,” Jackson said.

By game time Jackson will have had 48 hours to solve the Lakers’ problems. Despite his players’ optimism, there have been many.

• Karl Malone will be a game-time decision. He left Game4 in the third quarter because of a nagging knee injury and was limping more noticeably than at any point in the series.

• Bryant, who along with O’Neal was the cornerstone of the Lakers’ three championships under Jackson, has been shut down by Detroit’s suffocating defense. He made just 12 of 38 shots from the floor in the last two games and is out of rhythm. He has made just 39 percent of his field goals in the series.

• Only once this series have the Lakers outrebounded the far more lively Pistons. Detroit holds a 178-152 advantage in the category.

• The Pistons have taken 54 more free throws than the Lakers. Los Angeles usually is the recipient of generous officiating, especially this time of the year, but has done little but complain about it. Of course, Detroit is attacking the basket more than Los Angeles.

• The Lakers have struggled with their perimeter defense and have not been able to stop Pistons guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton.

Despite the problems, the Lakers were defiant yesterday.

“We don’t have a choice; we’ve got to win,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to get it done. I think we came up here, best-case scenario was to get three, the next was to get two. Step down from that we have to get one, and we still have the opportunity to do that. The worst possible scenario is you drop all three of these. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

“We have to understand that history is not necessarily on their side,” Bryant continued. “No home team has ever won three straight games at home, so, you know, that’s a bit of history to overcome.”

There’s two things that could help the Pistons overcome that: Bryant’s shot selection has been poor, and Malone has been unable to guard Rasheed Wallace. In Game4, Wallace had his best performance of the playoffs, scoring 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against the likes of Luke Walton and Stanislav Medvedenko.

Wallace is aware no home team has won the middle three games.

“We are not thinking about that,” Wallace said. “We are just out there playing, and if it makes history, then so be it. So far we don’t feel like we have done anything yet because this whole series is not over yet.”

It will be soon if the Lakers don’t change their ways. Since the series began, only Bryant and O’Neal have scored in double figures in any game. As a result, O’Neal resorted to a public plea for his teammates to step up.

“We need to get two other people in double figures,” O’Neal said. “Kobe and myself have been the only ones in double figures. We have to get somebody else involved.”

Getting O’Neal more involved could help the Lakers, too.

“I really expect to get it a lot,” a smiling O’Neal said. “It’s simple. If you don’t stick to simplicity, you’ll die a horrible death.”

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