- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Not long after he settled into his job as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan informally responded to wide-ranging questions about the league and its players.

One of the questions Jordan addressed — and this before ending his second retirement to play two seasons in Washington — was the player he would want to have the ball to win a game in the final seconds.

“Kobe Bryant, without question,” Jordan said in that famous baritone. “Definitely Kobe.”

Bryant, yet to see his 26th birthday, is finally — and, for once, legitimately — giving people reason to say that the NBA has a swingman who truly can be considered the heir apparent to Jordan.

Bryant bolstered his image Tuesday night when, with 2.1 regulation seconds left in Game2 of the NBA Finals and his Los Angles Lakers trailing by three points, he gathered in a pass from center Shaquille O’Neal and hoisted a 3-pointer that will go down as one of the greatest shots in playoffs history.

The basket gave the Lakers the impetus they needed to win 99-91 in overtime and even the series at 1-1 as it shifts to Detroit tonight. Perhaps more importantly, it prevented them from falling into an 0-2 hole at home, a predicament from which no team has recovered since the finals went to a 2-3-2 format in 1985.

Although the next three games are at the raucous Palace of Auburn Hills, Bryant said it’s possible the finals will turn on his basket and added, “Hopefully, this momentum will carry us throughout the remainder of the series.”

Despite Bryant’s breathtaking late-game theatrics, the Lakers travel to Detroit with questions.

The status of starting power forward Karl Malone in uncertain for the rest of the series. Plagued all season with a strained right MCL, Malone re-injured his knee in Tuesday’s game.

“I don’t know,” Malone, who played 39 minutes said following Game2. “I’m used to playing through injuries and whatever.”

It has become abundantly clear through two games that after center Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant are subtracted from the Lakers, the Pistons are significantly more talented. This was obvious late in the game after O’Neal picked up his fifth foul, when Bryant was on the floor with Luke Walton, Derek Fisher, Kareem Rush and the injured Malone.

Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups has had his way against Gary Payton, outscoring him 49-5. Payton’s only contribution has been to the league, which fined him Monday for missing a mandatory media session.

The Pistons are confident they can beat the Lakers. And had one of them fouled O’Neal seconds before Bryant got the ball in his hands, they could be home with what has proven an insurmountable lead in playoffs past.

“We’re still a confident team,” Detroit’s Richard Hamilton said. “It’s tough to lose the way we lost, but we got one. We wish we could have gotten two, but now it’s time to go to our home court. We’re going to take to total advantage of that and play in front of our home fans, which we think are the best in the world. We’re just going to go out and play.”

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