LOS ANGELES — They were three seconds from the top of the castle. Three seconds from a hammerlock on this series. And then Kobe Bryant lifted as high as a man can go without a trampoline, and Richard Hamilton got a hand up but not enough body, and the ball flew toward the hoop with every ounce of Lakers legend spinning a cloud of pixie dust around it. You knew it was going in. You could have closed your eyes and seen it. And when the net had been swished and the crowd had exploded and the game had been tied, this series that had been to that point — despite what everyone else said — really about the Pistons, suddenly really did become about the Lakers.

Their legacy. Their magic. Their reputation.

Their game.

That close.

You can ask a lot of questions this morning — why didn’t the Pistons foul Shaquille O’Neal? Why didn’t Rasheed Wallace hang onto the inbounds pass with two seconds to go? Why did Ben Wallace foul O’Neal on a lay-up when the lead was six? Why didn’t this or that? But the truth is, the Pistons had their chances. They had this game in hand. And when Bryant hit that shot with 2.1 seconds left on the clock, their hands opened as if pried with a claw. And they gave it back.

“This is what we do for a living,” Bryant said after that huge shot, the biggest three of his 33 points. “On that shot, I was just trying to back Richard up and knock it down.”

He knocked the Pistons down as well. And from that point on, they were in a daze. They might as well not have been out there. Kobe was the hypnotist, running his hands in front of the Pistons’ eyes, dangling a watch, putting them in a spell. He hit one lay-up. He hit another. He dished to Shaq for a jam. The Pistons stood around. When they did shoot they missed. They were something they had remarkably not been up to that point in this series:

Impressed.

And defeated.

Final score: 99-91 in overtime. And, thus stung by Lakers magic, this morning, instead of flying home with a stunning and commanding 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, they are tied in games, but perhaps not tied in aura. The Lakers have that still.

Their game.

That close.

Rising to the pressure

“This was definitely there in the exciting games I’ve been a part of,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who threw everything at the Pistons on Tuesday night, different defenses, different lineups, a rookie, you name it. “But that shot by Kobe was a great shot.”

The shame of this is all the Pistons wasted with a few bad plays. They wasted a wonderful comeback from 11 points down. They wasted a terrific weathering of Lakers surges, coaching moves, surprising subs. They weathered one of those one-night, star-is-born performances that can kill you in the playoffs, when rookie Luke Walton dished out eight assists and scored seven points and was responsible for 23 points.

They survived all that Tuesday night. But they couldn’t survive Kobe, who lives for these moments. Bryant had 14 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He had seven assists and two steals and some great defense on Hamilton. But it will be that long three-pointer from just outside the top of the key that everyone will remember, and Detroit fans will have to choke on for the next 36 hours.

“How do you make those pressure shots?” he was asked.

“If we can’t rise up to that pressure,” he answered, “we shouldn’t be playing.”

Deadlocked headed to Detroit

If there was one thing that everyone agreed on Tuesday before tip-off, it was that Game 2 would not be Game 1.

“If we don’t expect a great game out of them tonight, we’re in trouble,” Larry Brown warned.

It was a great game from the Lakers — but only in spurts. And once again, it was mostly a two-man scoring show, Shaq and Kobe scoring 62 of the 99 points. The Lakers hardly came out like gangbusters, and until Walton came off the bench, they looked eminently beatable. Jackson called his substitution “temporary insanity” and you might have believed it, considering that Walton is a 24-year-old rookie averaging four minutes a game. But he came in and had the 12 minutes of his life. He hit a three-pointer when Tayshaun Prince was late coming over. He grabbed a defensive rebound on one end and got a lay-up on the other. He drove and dished to Shaq for a jam. He found Kobe with a bullet pass for a lay-up. Walton was doing what some of his more famous teammates were unwilling to do: share the ball. He had five assists in the first half, which is more than any Laker had the entire game on Sunday.

“He’s a rookie, and it’s amazing how he can give me the ball and guys who have been playing with me for years can’t give it to me,” O’Neal said.

Still, it was a superstar who beat the Pistons, on a play that needn’t have happened.

And for those of you who might say, “Hey, it’s not so bad, they played it really close,” well, I think I can speak for the Pistons here. There are no moral victories. In fact, the close ones hurt more than the blowouts. And to have had the Lakers in such a precarious position and to fall victim to the very thing they had been so good at avoiding — the long, miracle shot — well, that hurts even more.

This morning fans will be asking why the Pistons didn’t foul O’Neal, who had the ball before Kobe ever touched it on the final possession. At worst, he makes both free throws, the Pistons are still up one, and the Lakers have no time-outs. At best, he misses one or two, and the Pistons have the ball and a cushion.

“We don’t foul in situations like that,” Brown said. “We just wanted to switch out and be aggressive, but we kind of backed off on Kobe’s shot.”

“We were lucky they didn’t foul,” Jackson admitted, perhaps being more candid.

Not that it makes Pistons fans feel any better.

“We had them on the ropes,” Chauncey Billups said. “I think we outplayed that team for three quarters of each game. I think they know this is gonna be a dogfight. They got to respect what they did.”

They’d respect it more from an 0-2 hole. Especially with the series moving back to the Palace for the next three games.

Are the Pistons tied, one game apiece? Yes. Is that better than being down 0-2? Sure. If we offered you this result when they came out here would you be happy? Likely. But things change by the minute during the NBA Finals, and what was once just a joy to be there had turned into an expectation. Thursday night, it may turn into something else. That fast. That quick. That close.

Their game.

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

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