GAME 2 DEFEAT WILL HAVE LINGERING EFFECT

So now the Pistons must win five games to take the crown. They already have won two, gotten credit for one, and have to live with the haunting reminder of Kobe Bryant’s three-point miracle Tuesday night, a shot that never should have happened. That basket tilted the series on an axis, made a hill out of a horizon, and tonight we will learn just how steep the incline has grown.

Forget what anyone says. There are certain losses that resound more than others, that carry over, that play in your head. Look no further than the 1988 World Series, when, with one ninth-inning swing of the bat, Kirk Gibson turned defeat into victory, and victory, ultimately, into a Dodgers championship. Oakland never recovered from that blast, even though it was only one loss and only Game 1.

Same thing happened with these Lakers a few weeks ago against San Antonio, Game 5 of their conference semifinal. Had Derek Fisher not made that prayer of a shot in the last four-tenths of a second, the Spurs almost certainly would have won that series. Instead, they were still playing Game 5 in their heads when they crashed and burned in Game 6.

The Pistons’ enemy now is not just the guys in purple and gold, but thinking about the guys in purple and gold. And if we wanted to find out what the Pistons are made of — and I mean find out like crawling inside their brains and finding out — we’ll get to do it starting now.

Did Brown suffer a brain cramp?

The shame of this, of course, is that it never had to happen. Game 2’s defeat falls mostly on Pistons coach Larry Brown, who, remember, was also on the precipice of going further than he had ever gone before, two victories in an NBA Finals.

And then, something froze — in his head and in his team. The Lakers had the ball, out of bounds, 10.9 seconds left, trailing by three, and no time-outs. There is simply no good reason why, if given a chance to foul before a shot, the Pistons shouldn’t have done it.

Brown should have made that paramount in their minds. He should have pulled aside several guys and reminded them again. He should have screamed it the moment the play began — not merely made it one of the many things mentioned in a huddle.

And to be fair, the players should have known it themselves. It’s basic, high-percentage basketball.

Instead, when the Lakers inbounded the ball, it went to Shaquille O’Neal, a bad free-throw shooter, who got it to Luke Walton, a rookie, who then, finally, swung it to Kobe. Shaq and Walton? You couldn’t ask for better candidates to miss pressure free throws. Worst-case scenario, you foul them, they make both shots, you still have a one-point lead — but you also have the ball. And they have no time-outs! Even if they quickly foul you back, it eats time to get up and down the court. You effectively shrink the game to nothing.

So where was the foul?

“I was expecting it,” Kobe admitted.

“We were fortunate they didn’t do it,” Phil Jackson said.

“We don’t play that way,” Brown said.

They don’t play to win?

Bryant is Mr. Big-shot

Look, not to harp on Brown, who has earned the right to be stubbornly purist, but the odds are clearly in your favor with a quick foul — far more so than challenging Kobe Bryant, maybe the reigning big-shot shooter in the NBA.

And as much as Brown will pooh-pooh it — and the players will echo him, trying to be loyal — this was a mistake, and mistakes can haunt. Remember Detroit’s Game 5 against New Jersey, the triple-overtime game? Chauncey Billups hit that buzzer-beating trey to tie it in regulation?

After the game, Nets coach Lawrence Frank was red with rage — at himself. “I was such an idiot,” he said. He was referring to the failure to foul Billups — or anyone — to keep the three from ever happening. Same thing Brown should have done.

Only Frank won that game.

We can’t predict what might have been had this series come home with the Pistons up two on L.A. But history can. History says no team has come back from such a deficit to win it all. That’s one thing Detroit surrendered Tuesday night. And it’s a mighty thing.

But enough. What’s done is done. So the Pistons have to win five to get a crown. If they do it, it will be an even greater mark of their mental toughness.

But if there’s a hangover from that Kobe shot, understand, it might not show itself this evening at the Palace. It might not arise again until the next big moment, the next big staredown, when clear heads and calm heroes are called for. In such moments, it’s the folks who have done it before who have the edge.

At the moment, the Lakers still hold that chip. It was in the Pistons’ hands, ever so briefly in Game 2. If they get another chance, Brown and every man in a Detroit uniform had better grab that thing as if their lives depended on it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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