In their little gray gym in El Segundo, where they train and scheme and talk about stuff, the Lakers conceded Thursday afternoon that they were dismayed by what they had done for the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals.
Of course they would be, having lost them both, Wednesday night particularly dismally. That, apparently, pushed Phil Jackson into another lineup change and another very pointed conversation about the officiating, all in time for tonight’s Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs.
On the eve of returning to Staples Center, where their offense has been reliable and their defense at least visible, the Lakers also expressed some optimism for what is ahead, all in all an OK place to be as the crisis mounted.
Mark Madsen pedaled happily on a bike in the corner. Kobe Bryant pulled a cap down over his forehead. Derek Fisher crossed his arms and smiled at Brian Shaw, who responded with his heavy-lidded, half-nod hello.
There would be no obvious sign of Shaquille O’Neal, who’d spent three days in San Antonio nudging Spurs into courtside photographers, while Bryant wore a Bruce Bowen sarong, and Robert Horry patted his pockets for a shooting stroke.
Nearing Game 3 and every day reminded that this fourth consecutive championship is a real pip, they all agreed they’d have to shoot straighter and defend harder, otherwise the title run would be over at three.
As Shaw said, “If we don’t get it done now, we’re going to be on vacation.”
The last time the Lakers lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series and won that series, it was 1969 and Shaw was 3. No team has come back from 0-3, which the Lakers risk with another poor game.
On the day off, Jackson reminded everyone that he believes Bryant is being hacked by Bowen and O’Neal is being picked on by the referees, but, he said, “I’m certainly not going to go to the league and complain about it,” a reference to the Indiana Pacers once taking such steps to get Scottie Pippen surgically removed from Mark Jackson.
“I anticipate Bowen’s not going to get away with the kind of defensive strategy he used on Kobe,” Jackson said. “Into him, on his arms, those things are things that probably will not happen on our home court. Those minor things I think will be different.”
Bryant clearly has been displeased with the officiating. So has O’Neal, who fouled out of Game 1 and was in some foul trouble in Game 2 before it grew into a rout. He has been called for five of his 10 fouls at the offensive end, a trend O’Neal and the Lakers find galling. That takes O’Neal out of his usual aggressive mode. And, while he lobbied to get a few inches for Bryant, Jackson said it was O’Neal who’d have to give a few on the interior.
“At this particular time, he’s going to have to go away from the pressure,” Jackson said.
Meantime, Bowen has kept his head down and his praise for Bryant high. It’s a tough living, standing across from Bryant, often alone in the Spurs’ scheme, but Bowen has been effective enough to allow the rest of the Spurs to stay with their assigned Lakers. It is why Fisher has shot only four three-pointers in the series, why the Spurs can pull away from Horry to double O’Neal, and, ultimately, why the Spurs have won six in succession against the Lakers.
“I’m not going to get caught up in a Kobe-Bruce matchup,” Bryant said. “He can’t guard me. He makes it tough for me to get shots off and score points. He makes me work. But individually he can’t guard me. That’s not my concern. My concern is making sure we get other guys in rhythm. Then ... I’ll go into attack mode, because now the back side of his defense can’t key into me too much. They have to worry about Robert Horry stepping out and making shots, Derek Fisher stepping out and making shots. Now, when I drive to the basket, the help isn’t going to be there.”
Jackson demands that fouls be called, but Bowen’s defense is the kind Bryant plays when he is committed to and challenged by an opponent, the kind Madsen plays almost nightly, the kind O’Neal plays in May and June, and Rick Fox plays against Peja Stojakovic, or whomever. Even Bryant, who had three shots blocked in Game 2, could not deny Bowen was game.
“You just have to play through it,” he said. “That’s where I am. You know Bowen’s going to grab you, you know he’s going to smack you. Just play through it.”
Bryant and O’Neal aren’t really Jackson’s problems, though he’d like them both to move the ball better. Already down Devean George, injured and apparently unavailable until at least Sunday, and Fox, Jackson started Shaw at shooting guard in Game 2 and moved Bryant to small forward. Spur Coach Gregg Popovich countered quickly with rookie Manu Ginobili, and Ginobili was so effective that Jackson is considering other options.
He could open with a backcourt of Fisher and rookie Jannero Pargo, again pushing Bryant to the front court in a lineup that would be quick and allow Fisher more time off the ball, but would also be small. The staff has discussed starting Horry and Madsen together, giving Horry a crack at small forward, but Horry has not shot well, and Madsen is not a scoring threat, which would allow the Spurs to cheat into O’Neal.
They have options, some of them good. They have O’Neal and Bryant, and everybody worked on the it’s-not-over-yet theme, and seemed to believe it, all in all not a terrible place to be, yet.
“This isn’t really that critical of a situation,” Jackson said.
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*--* Only seven times in NBA history has a team come back from an 0-2 deficit in seven-game series: YR TEAMS ROUND RES 1995 Houston def. Phoenix Conf. Semifinals 4-3 1994 Houston def. Phoenix Conf. Semifinals 4-3 1993 Chicago def. New York Conf. Finals 4-2 1977 Portland def. Philadelphia NBA Finals 4-2 1971 Baltimore def. New York Conf. Finals 4-3 1969 Lakers def. San Francisco Conf. Semifinals 4-2 1969 Boston def. Lakers NBA Finals 4-3