MINNEAPOLIS -- In a seven-game series, a lot of things can go wrong. "One injury is all it takes" is something you hear people say quite a bit. In the Los Angeles Lakers' worst-case scenario/nightmare, that injury would happen to Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant.
Or worse, Rick Fox.
No, the Lakers probably couldn't win a scrimmage without Shaq or Kobe. But Fox is the one who has set the tone for the Lakers' defensive intensity and overall aggression.
Fox is the man who isn't afraid to crash the floor in pursuit of a loose ball, sacrifice his groin to take a charge or an elbow to the nose if he thinks he has a clear shot at the ball. But against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5, Fox will likely get the same amount of minutes as Tex Winter. Zero. His left ankle hasn't allowed him to walk without pain since he rolled it in the first quarter of Game 4 at the Staples Center.
"I can't put any weight on it," he said. "I've never felt that kind of pain before."
Enter Devean George. The fourth-year small forward will replace Fox in the starting lineup and will be called on for the rest of the playoffs to give the thinning Lakers the boost they desperately need on both ends of the floor. George has spent most of his career teasing Lakers management with his explosive athletic ability and knack for scoring while frustrating them with his inability to maximize his potential.
George will have the opportunity to do one or the other under a glaring spotlight Tuesday night at the Target Center. George came up huge for the Lakers in the second half of Game 4 by scoring seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter and serving up two big blocks on Wally Szczerbiak that forced a 24-second shot-clock violation late in the game.
But in the first half, George was the player Laker faithful know all too well. He stood around on the perimeter and proceeded to brick one flat jumpshot after another, missing four straight at one point. He also picked up two quick fouls within five minutes of replacing Fox and was summoned to the bench in favor of Brian Shaw.
But on the plus side, George's 17-foot jumper stopped a late Wolves run and put the Lakers up for good, 88-87. George has often been considered not suitable for the Lakers' triple-post offense because his type of game is too similar to Bryant's and he is often ineffective when he's on the floor with Kobe. George needs the ball to score, and Kobe dominates the ball.
Ball or no ball, George must somehow provide a sizeable contribution, considering he'll likely play 30-plus minutes. For Game 5, George will earn his keep trying to frustrate Szczerbiak by face-guarding and denying him the ball all night long, crashing the defensive boards and showing he can consistently knock down open jumpers to relieve pressure from Shaq.
It's a big task, but only the Lakers' bid at a fourth straight world championship is at stake.
"I know I'll be called on to step things up," George said. "Kobe and Shaq need support, and I'm going to give it to them."
By George, he'd better.
Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.