By Eric Neel
Page 2

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers are still the story.

It wouldn't have mattered if the Pistons had won by 25 Sunday night. As long as L.A. is still L.A and Detroit is still Detroit, as long as one has the Daddy and the kid and the other counters with Rip and the Bens, the Lakers are still the story.

If the Pistons sweep this thing, the story will be, "What happened to the Lakers?"

This is not the swagger of a championship team.

Heading into Game 2, though, the story is, "Here come the Lakers."

Like the Los Angeles skyline, they were buried in a smoggy haze the other night. But come Tuesday, they're going to dial it up, smack the Pistons around a bit, and restore order to the series.

That's the story.

If you love the Lakers, you marvel at their championship gearbox and the way they can kick it into overdrive when the going gets tough.

If you hate the Lakers, this is what ticks you off the most about them: the perception that they cruise, the feeling that they pick their spots, the belief that they flip a switch.

And who am I kidding? If you read yesterday's column you know, even if you love 'em, they can send you into a fit.

What if you're a player? Is it a real thing in your mind? Do you have a sense of it on the court and in the locker room?

"Part of it is expectations," says Lakers forward Rick Fox. "We were expected to win everything in a walk this year; so anytime we don't win, it can look like we're underachieving."

But is there a switch? Does the team know when it has to be flipped and do they have a clear understanding of how to do it?

"It's not a switch between deciding not to play and deciding to play," Fox says. "It's a matter of self-sacrifice. Sometimes we choose to sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of the team, and other times our focus shifts to individual achievements."

Phil says the team gets too familiar with winning and slips into thinking it's dominant. On the one hand, Derek Fisher's shot with four-tenths to go against San Antonio was a hair's-breadth escape from being down and out. On the other hand, as an extension of Robert Horry's icy 3-pointer in 2002, and in the midst of four Finals appearances in five years, it was almost the kind of thing the team expected to happen.

"I think we've spoiled ourselves in a lot of ways," Fisher says. "At times, we expect to just win, you know, because we've won in the past."

You're winning, and it seems things will just take care of themselves; and you think, what could be the harm, while things are rolling along, in maybe paying a little more attention to your own needs, to the pains in your body, to the shots you want on the floor?

But eventually, you're going to take a bad beat thinking and feeling like this. The fabric of the team is going to get stretched too thin.

Ben Wallace, Shaquille O'Neal
See, with Big Ben and the Pistons, it's not about getting your face in the spotlight.

"All the glory that's out there, all the success we search for," Fox says. "The bottom line is, we only have it when we collectively do it, when we can't predict or control who shines."

Teamwork, like marriage, like playing in a band, is a tenuous thing. Its coherent moments are so sweet because they're so improbable and so often rare, because the wicked entropy of time and circumstance, because the tugs and leanings of ego, constantly work against them.

When the Lakers or any team celebrate a championship, they're not just celebrating the wins. They're celebrating what the wins represent: The team's ability, against the odds, to function, in whatever ramshackle, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang sort of way, as a team.

Fox and Fisher say they don't know exactly why, but the Lakers seem to need losses like heart attack patients need the jolt from a defibrillator.

"We have a lot of willful athletes, and we each like to see things done our way," Fox says. "Sometimes, it isn't until you go down 0-1 or 0-2 and get smacked around, get smacked back to reality, that you come together again."

If you play or root for a team still climbing the mountain, you've got no patience for this kind of Lakers talk. Fair enough.

But the clichés about staying on top being harder than getting there didn't come from nowhere.

If there's a kind of conceit in the Lakers' habit of putting themselves in the hole before digging themselves out, there's also a kind of drama in it.

How will they do it next time? What will spur it? Will Shaq dive for a loose ball again? Will Kobe go on a run?

And most dramatic and most interesting of all, what if they can't pull it off this next time? What if they bring the juice, flip the switch, and get nada?

Fisher says the team will make the adjustments. No one will have to talk about them. Everyone's face will reflect the necessary resolve come tip-off.

Fox says, "You can only cry wolf so many times before it catches up to you. I just hope it isn't while I'm still here." But he still feels, and who can blame him, that winning the championship is a matter of what the Lakers "choose" to do.

It's hard to say they won't do it. Shaq is too big to really doubt. Kobe is too automatic.

But if they do come up empty, it also won't be hard to figure out why.

Game 1 was no fluke.

Richard Hamilton, Kobe Bryant
Kobe has it tough on both ends of the floor.

Prince on Kobe is the real deal. He's the skinniest, gangliest son of a gun you're ever going to see, but he plays defense like a fly flaps its wings -- quickly, constantly.

Hamilton is going to play better than he did Sunday night, because he couldn't play worse.

Fisher and Payton are going to have their hands full with Billups every night. He's strong in the shoulders. He creates gaps.

The Pistons have a great rep for defense and Larry Brown is well respected by the officials. There won't be many cheap calls for the favorites. The underdogs can afford to play straight up.

Unlike the Sixers in '01, Detroit's team is healthy and deep. They'll come in waves and they'll keep coming.

And unlike the Lakers now, Detroit's been playing hounding defense all year, so the fitness advantage has got to be theirs.

Lakers assistant coach Jim Clemons says, "You can't play this game, every day, every minute, at your peak; it's not possible."

Maybe not, but the Lakers are going to have to come close from here on out.

Los Angeles is going to come strong tonight. No doubt. Payton and Malone will bring more energy. Guys will cut to their spots harder and cleaner (Fox calls it, "Being purposeful with our movements"). They'll move the ball. They'll find ways to get Kobe some space. They'll make a point of feeding Shaq in the second half this time.

But the question is, will it be enough?

Heading into Game 2, that's the story.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. He will file daily from the NBA Finals, and his "On Baseball" column appears weekly during the baseball season.