Marty Burns
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Lakers forward Karl Malone has been watching more than game film of the Pistons lately. "I've been watching a lot of The Last Samurai, he said Wednesday, referring to his desire to continue to play in the NBA Finals despite a sprained right knee.

Unlike that Tom Cruise flick, however, life doesn't always deal out Hollywood endings. Despite escaping Game 2 with an overtime victory, Malone and the Lakers appear headed toward something more resembling a Greek tragedy.

Widely expected to beat the Pistons easily, L.A. was outplayed in both of the first two games at home. If Kobe Bryant's miracle 3-pointer doesn't go down in Game 2, the Lakers are facing a 2-0 deficit with the next three games at Detroit.

Make no mistake,even with the series tied, Detroit has the Lakers on their heels. Ben Wallace and the Pistons' long-armed defense have neutralized L.A.'s role players. Chauncey Billups has blitzed them with the screen-and-roll. And Detroit has consistently been able to run its offense and get good shots inside, resulting in a staggering 61 free throw attempts over the first two games.

Consider that if Detroit had merely shot the 74 percent from the foul line that it had in the regular season, Game 2 would never have come down to Kobe's 3-pointer. But the Pistons didn't, so now everybody is wondering if they can bounce back emotionally from such a heartbreaking defeat. We're guessing they can. After all, they rebounded pretty well from that triple-OT defeat to the Nets in the conference semifinals and took two straight to close out the series.

Helping Detroit's cause is the fact that L.A. has a major injury concern. The right knee Malone hurt early in Tuesday's Game 2 is the same one that kept him out of almost three months of the regular season. His status for Thursday's Game 3 is expected to be a gametime decision. Even if the 40-year-old warrior decides to suit up, there are serious doubts as to how effective he will be. Malone is vital to the Lakers in these Finals.

Not only is he a rugged defender and rebounder, but he's also one of the team's best passers. Plus, his savvy and determination can't be measured. After his injury Tuesday, he still managed to pull down a team-high nine rebounds, two more than Shaquille O'Neal. No offense to Slava Medvedenko, Brian Cook or Luke Walton, but none of those L.A. reserves has Malone's total package of size, ability and experience. The Lakers have talked to the Mailman about wearing a knee brace, but so far he has been cool to the idea. "I've never seen a samurai with a brace," he said, adding that he'd just try to play through the pain.

The problem for the Lakers is that Malone, of late, has been more pop gun than shogun. Showing signs of wear from a knee that needs to be drained, Malone's jumper has been increasingly off the longer the playoffs have gone. When he tripped over Derek Fisher's ankle in the second quarter of Game 2, aggravating the knee, his play deteriorated even further. The Mailman looked like a shell of his old self. Unable to get any lift on his shot, he missed a slew of bunnies. On defense, he got worked over by Rasheed Wallace in the post.

The Lakers aren't finished if Malone can't play full throttle, but their chances take a serious hit. Medvedenko and/or Cook can get the job done in spurts, but over the course of the series L.A. will miss the Mailman's presence. With Shaq and Kobe always on their own, and Gary Payton unhappy about his role, Malone has, in some ways, become the glue holding the Lakers together.

And while Phil Jackson's teams have a history of subs coming off the bench and getting the job done at clutch moments, the Lakers' bench is already thin, and it's extremely unlikely they'll get another impact performance like the Game 2-lift Walton provided with his hustle and energy.

Malone, who took less money to sign with the Lakers as a free agent for the chance to win a ring, will surely try to gut it out. "What the hell am I saving myself for?" he said Wednesday. Malone may be the closest thing the NBA has to a samurai warrior, but it might not be enough to fight his greatest enemy -- his body.

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