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Pistons pump new life into series, 96-79


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - You wanted an NBA conspiracy? You got one. C'mon, you think the arrival of the cavalry - the return of the smash hit, As the Lakers Turn - in the middle of the most depressing Finals in memory was a coincidence?

Unfortunately, it was a coincidence. In fact, NBA officials around The Palace of Auburn Hills appeared none too pleased that Phil Jackson's official return to coach Kobe Bryant and the Lakers - their "reconciliation," as Jackson put it - was staged mere hours before the resumption of its showcase event, the Finals that the Spurs lead 2-1 after last night.

Silly reaction. The NBA should embrace this. Better that than to embrace the disaster this series has become for everybody outside San Antonio. Better to talk about the reunion of a player and the coach who called him "uncoachable" in a best-selling diary of their last season together, than about the defending world champions struggling to top 70 points and whining about the refs.

The timing of the reunion of Phil, Kobe and the franchise neither could live with or without, couldn't be more serendipitous. The ratings for these Finals are being totally eclipsed by last year's numbers, and you don't have to be a hard-core Pistons fans to admit that last June's Finals were more fun.

(The hard-core fans, by the way, are feeling very fatalistic, if the venting on the local talk shows and among the barbers and customers at Sporty Cutz on Detroit's West Side yesterday were any indication.)

The plunge in interest is not only because the Spurs began the Finals with two routs. Last year's Finals featured, above all, the disintegration of the Lakers' dynasty, soap-operatic climaxes and all. The buzz was deafening.

The Pistons themselves rode the wave, deified as the team that did things "the right way," with no ego-mad stars and holier-than-thou coach - and which beat the team defined by those very factors.

And here we are, a year later, almost to the day and in the exact same location, with attention shifted back West, to La-La Land, the home of Showtime (not to mention the home of celebrity trials, a phenomenon to which a certain Laker notably added his name).

It all shifts attention conveniently away from a Pistons team that got off to such a horrible start in the Finals against a painfully bland Spurs team.

These Finals are missing offense, true enough. But they're also missing personality, a certain sizzle. Simply put, they're missing the Lakers, or a reasonable facsimile.

Now, Jackson and his nine rings are back in town. Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter, Lakers vice president and Phil's companion, is adding to the craziness by angling for a ring of her own from her man. Kobe apparently has given his blessing - to the new coach, not to his romance, as far as anyone knows. And the Lakers are back to being must-see TV.

How will Phil juggle the needs and wants of the two most important people in his life, personal and professional? A nation awaits breathlessly.

The return of Phil also rekindles the Shaq-Kobe rivalry that fizzled after the Christmas reunion. Commissioner David Stern added doom to the Finals gloom Sunday by claiming that a lockout, which could potentially nuke next season, was all but assured. But he'd kiss union chief Billy Hunter on the lips if it guaranteed a 2006 Finals between Shaq's Miami Heat and the updated version of the Lakers.

OK, maybe Stern wouldn't. This space remains a conspiracy-free zone. And no amount of emotion will make the Lakers a contender that fast, since Jackson himself wasn't even promising that yesterday. Think playoffs, he said, although he did invoke the lone real rebuilding job he has been part of in his star-kissed coaching career.

When Michael Jordan came back to the Chicago Bulls from his baseball flirtation late in the 1994-95 season, only Jackson and Scottie Pippen had remained from the first three-peat. A year later, retooled from a second-round playoff team, the Bulls won 72 games and rolled to the first of three more consecutive titles.

Now, it's Jackson making the comeback. He might bring the Lakers back. He definitely has helped bring the NBA back, and he hasn't coached a game yet.

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