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Lakers' three consecutive road losses to Detroit in 2004 Finals featured similar trend they need to avoid against Boston

June 8, 2010 |  3:09 pm


The timing of this topic could leave Lakers fans feeling uncomfortable, what with some of them already having legitimate concerns about the team entering Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night. The legitimacy of this topic could puzzle some fans considering that this time period has proved vastly different from the present. And it could prove to be a vast overreaction considering the Lakers are tied with the Celtics, 1-1.

But reflecting on the Lakers' 2004 NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons serves a valuable purpose simply because it shows what the Lakers can't afford to do for the rest of the series against the Celtics. That's because the Lakers tied the series with the Pistons, 1-1, before traveling to Detroit for three consecutive games. History has shown it's infrequent for NBA teams to win all of those games in the Finals, with only two teams accomplishing that feat since the 2-3-2 format was instituted in 1985. And unfortunately for the Lakers, they're part of that history, losing three consecutive games to Detroit, followed by a busy off-season that included Phil Jackon's departure and Shaquille O'Neal's trade.

I'm not incredibly troubled by the Lakers' situation beyond their horrible performance in Game 2. So let this serve as a cautionary tale so that Lakers can take the preventive measures so that their 2004 Finals performance remains an isolated incident. Besides, Lakers fans surely don't want strong Paul Pierce's proclamation that "We ain't coming back to L.A.!" to ring true (unless, of course, it's because the Lakers win the series in five games).

Limit the backcourt

Different personnel, same results.

Against the series against Detroit, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups won the Finals' most-valuable player award after burning the Lakers for 21 points a game. After Kobe Bryant limited Richard Hamilton in the first two games, Hamilton unloaded in the next three games and finished with an average of 21.4 points a game.

It's too early to say whether Boston's backcourt will experience similar success, but it could. The Lakers effectively limited Rajon Rondo in Game 1, but he responded with a triple-double. Ray Allen's foul trouble in Game 1 limited his effectiveness, but he responded by making the most three-pointers in a game in NBA Finals history (eight).

"You try to take the ball out of his hands as much as possible," Bryant said of Allen. "He's catching it. You've got to try to deny him and force him off his sweet spots. He was hot."


Avoid foul trouble

Say what you will about the officiating, and plenty of you have, but there's only so many times Jackson can draw out fines from the league. In the end, griping about it does very little beyond enriching NBA Cares' resources. Instead, follow Bryant's advice: "You've got to play your game as the whistles sort themselves out."

The Lakers had trouble doing that in the 2004 Finals, with O'Neal and Devean George picking up two early fouls in a Game 4 loss. The Lakers also experienced that unfortunate reality in Games 1 and 2 against Boston. And they've shown a mixed ability to absorb foul trouble. In the Lakers' 102-89 Game 1 victory, the Lakers dealt with Bryant, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher getting two first-quarter fouls, thanks to the bench absorbing the Lakers' lead. They managed to tolerate a disappearing night from Lamar Odom, whose five fouls partly contributed to his five points in 21 minutes, because they had four players who scored in double figures. And the combined 54 fouls from Boston and the Lakers didn't disrupt the Lakers' offense, even if it disrupted the Lakers' flow.

That proved to be a different story in the Lakers' 103-94 loss in Game 2. Odom scored three points on one-for-three shooting in 14 minutes 38 seconds after picking up three fouls in the first quarter. Bryant collected his fourth foul with 6:19 left in the third quarter and sat out the rest of the period. He was given his fifth foul at the 11:15 mark of the fourth quarter, leading Bryant to acknowledge that Boston tried to bait him into getting fouls. Artest's two consecutive fouls late in the game rattled him enough to turn the ball over on the next play. And Bynum picked up three of his five fouls in the final quarter.

"You've got to play through that," Gasol said. "There's nothing you can really do about it; you've just got to, again, play hard and do the things that you would normally do."

Use inside game

Bryant is a much different player now than he was in 2004, but the issue remains relevant. That issue involves the Lakers needing to improve their shot selection and take complete advantage of their size.

In the Lakers' 88-68 Game 3 loss to Detroit in 2004, Bryant shot four for 13, dribbled into double teams and committed four turnovers, an effort that significantly contributed to the Lakers' finishing with a playoff-low 68 points. The offensive imbalance affected many, including O'Neal (14 points) and Gary Payton (six), as well as the Lakers' rebounding (45-38) and second-chance points (three).

In the Lakers' Game 2 loss to the Celtics, shot selection and balance remained an issue. Artest went one for 10 from the field. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined for 46 points on an efficient 13-for-20 clip, showing that their effectiveness could have been maximized had they gotten more looks. And the Lakers went one for nine from the field for the remaining 5:21 of the game and committed four turnovers in the final quarter.

"Their execution was better," Jackson said of Boston after Game 2. "They had second‑chance opportunities in that sequence, and that was really the difference in the ballgame."

-- Mark Medina in Boston

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Photo: Bill Davidson holds the Larry O'Brien trophy after the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship against the Lakers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Credit: Paul Sancya/Associated Press.

Photo: Kobe Bryant wipes sweat from his face during Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Detroit Pistons won the game, 100-87, and the series, 4-1, to deny the Lakers another championship. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.