It’s a Motor Trend / Pistons take a commanding 3-1 series lead after pulling away at the finish
So this is how it will end.
So these are the lengths to which the nastiness between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will stretch.
Bryant will fight their season into the ground. He will ignore O’Neal into infinity. He will stoke the feud until the last light is dimmed and one of them leaves town.
It will be awful, and ugly, and a championship may collapse under its stupidity.
The latest example was Sunday, Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, a victory the Lakers needed to avoid a historically insurmountable deficit.
O’Neal could have won it for them.
But Bryant would not throw it to him.
O’Neal blew the Pistons away.
But Bryant blew him off.
O’Neal showed up larger than life, staring down critics who wondered whether he had lost his championship swagger, 36 points, 20 rebounds, the biggest man in the basketball universe.
Yet Bryant could not find him. Would not find him. How do you not find him?
Bryant took four more shots than a man who could not miss.
Bryant threw up balls while falling and sliding and dancing two-dozen feet from the basket, ignoring a guy waiting to dunk.
In 45 minutes, Bryant had zero rebounds, two assists, three turnovers, and one big question.
What on earth was he thinking?
The final score was Detroit 88, Lakers 80, and the difference was best computed by Rick Fox.
“Shaq should have had 50,” said Fox. “And that would have been the difference.”
The Lakers now trail three games to one, a deficit that has never been overcome in the history of the NBA Finals, and isn’t this just perfect.
The two supermen who have led them to three championships, done in by human frailties.
Their five-year fight, culminating in a double knockout.
Said Bryant: “My shot selection, some of them were good and some of them stunk. That’s pretty much every game with me.”
Said O’Neal, when asked if he was disappointed when teammates ignored him: “Of course I was.”
The game was tied after three quarters, the Lakers finally succumbing in a fourth quarter in which they were outrebounded, outdefended, and outshot at the free throw line.
But it was lost at the start.
In the first quarter, O’Neal scored six consecutive points and was involved in 14 of 16 points during one stretch.
“This was going to be his game, it was clear right away, we just had to get him the ball,” said Fox.
And everybody did ... but Bryant.
He was the only one of the five players with the most first-quarter minutes who did not have an assist.
While O’Neal was five for five, Bryant was one for six.
Is it any wonder that, even though the Pistons shot only 35% in the quarter and weren’t moving the ball, they finished it trailing by only one point?
Fast forward to midway through the second quarter, with the Lakers leading, 32-29, on O’Neal’s dunk.
In the final six minutes of the period, O’Neal does not take another shot, while Bryant throws up five wild ones, two of which fall, while losing another ball on a drive.
At halftime, the Lakers trail by two, and should be leading by 10.
“We let one slip away,” said O’Neal.
By the fourth quarter, O’Neal was exhausted, yet still managed to make all but one of his six shots in the period.
Bryant, meanwhile, missed half of his six shots in the period and had one of the team’s three turnovers.
He was also frustrated enough after one foul to scream at official Jack Nies, who assessed him a technical, which led to another Piston point.
“It was a sloppy fourth quarter for us,” said O’Neal. “We had too many ill-advised shots, we had too many turnovers.”
Bryant, who finished with only eight field goals in 25 shots, has had a sloppy series with the exception of his late rush in Game 2.
Some of it has been the long arms of Tayshaun Prince. Some of it has been a Detroit team defense that rarely lets him approach the basket untouched.
But on Sunday night, much of it was about the one trait that he has shown more than all others in his time in Los Angeles, his stubbornness.
“Yeah, I’ve just got to shoot through it,” he said.
“Prince is a long guy. He’s able to get his hands up on my arms and my follow-throughs. He’s doing a good job staying in front of me.”
Now, perhaps, only one game is in front of him, a Tuesday night Game 5 in which the Pistons could clinch the series and the NBA championship.
A different ending than planned, no?
For three of the last four springs, it seemed as if Kobe Bryant would be with Shaquille O’Neal forever.
In perhaps the penultimate game of what could be their final spring together, it seems as if he can’t get away from him fast enough.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.