Stars not aligned
The biggest worry for the Lakers heading into Sunday's Game 4 of the NBA Finals might not be the Pistons' tenacious defense or Karl Malone's injured knee. It might be the lack of harmony surfacing (again) between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Once again, the two superstars don't seem to be on the same page. In the aftermath of their dismal blowout loss in Game 3, they took opposite views of the reason for the bloodbath. "I've got to get [the ball]," Shaq said, referring to the fact that he had only 14 field-goal attempts.
"We're not worried about getting him more touches," said Bryant, who forced several shots against Detroit's team defense. "We're worried about winning the game and getting everybody better looks."
Somewhere Pistons coach Larry Brown must be smiling. His team not only has outplayed the Lakers in all three games, it now has them picking at old scabs. Shaq and Kobe have butted heads before on this issue, of course, but never in the middle of the Finals.
The Lakers better hope Shaq and Kobe can put aside their differences and play within a team concept in Game 4. If either one tries to do too much himself, he's only going to make it worse. One wonders if the two stars have already decided they're not going to be playing together next year anyway, and therefore are not as willing to trust the other.
Here are three other things the Lakers must do to win Game 4 and get back in this series:
The Lakers have been outrebounded 97-78 over the past two games, including a whopping 34-16 edge on the offensive glass. Clearly, Malone's injury has hurt L.A. in this department. Also, Shaq has not been nearly as active. The Lakers can't afford to give Detroit extra possessions, especially when L.A.'s own offense is struggling.
Coach Phil Jackson might have to try a bigger lineup, perhaps using Slava Medvedenko or Brian Cook instead of the gimpy Malone. Of course, he then loses Malone's defense and savvy against Rasheed Wallace. But at this point, L.A. seems to need quicker players on the floor. It also needs Shaq, whose rebounding numbers are down significantly, to be more aggressive going after the ball.
Detroit has shot 35 more free throws than L.A. so far, a huge edge for a team that was expected to struggle to score. As much as Jackson wants to blame it on the refs, the truth is the Pistons have done a great job executing their offense. Despite the towering presence of Shaq in the middle, Detroit keeps getting layups and close shots. They've missed a bunch of easy ones too, or the final scores might have been worse. The Lakers must do a better job moving their feet, especially on the screen-and-roll, and avoiding reach-in fouls. Detroit is a good foul-shooting team, and it will continue to make L.A. pay given the chance.
Yes, it smacks of desperation. But that's where the Lakers are right now. Russell has played just nine minutes so far the entire postseason, but the 6-foot-7 reserve small forward is a proven long-range shooter with Finals experience from his Jazz days. During the regular season he shot 38.2 percent from downtown. With Derek Fisher and other Lakers unable to knock down open shots, Russell could provide that dimension. Even Shaq has mentioned the 33-year-old vet as a guy who could help on offense. Last year, Steve Kerr came off the bench for the Spurs after barely playing in the postseason and sparked the Spurs with his long-range shooting. It might be worth a shot at least.