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Sun has set on the Lakers’ glowing reign

SHARE Sun has set on the Lakers’ glowing reign

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — This is not just the close of a season but an era. A passing is before us. The curtain falling on a remarkable time.

The Lakers have been the greatest sports story of the century, but it's a very young century, and this is suddenly a very old Los Angeles Lakers team.

A team that has run its course, that won three consecutive championships and made it to the Finals again this season, now one inevitable defeat from its greatest offseason of change.

They did make it this far, of course, sometimes stumbling, sometimes dazzling. This wild ride of a season, this unpredictable journey, likely will end in tonight's Game 5 against a very good but unexceptional Pistons team.

A team the Lakers should have beaten, if only they'd ever been the Lakers we expected.

They'll be broken up now, maybe dramatically. Some might leave because they want to, others because they're forced to. Kobe Bryant will explore free agency. Karl Malone might retire. Gary Payton might opt out. Derek Fisher, Slava Medvedenko can also be free agents.

And then there is the old Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson still left one title from breaking the championship record he shares with Red Auerbach. His five-year, $30 million contract expires with the next loss. The Lakers cut off extension negotiations and, oddly, announced it back in February.

Jackson, Bryant, Malone, Payton — they all could be gone. The grand 2003-04 experiment was a disappointment despite advancing to the Finals.

Where did it go wrong?

All those remarkable pieces never quite made the remarkable fit. It was something the Lakers had to try. How do you say "no" to Malone and Payton, particularly when both are sacrificing millions for a chance at the title?

It almost looked easy when they started the season 18-3 and everyone almost started conceding the title.

Signs of what was to come were there, though. Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant going juvenile on us at the season's opening, calling each other out yet again. Theirs was always an uneasy alliance, and even now in the Finals there is the familiar code bickering.

Shaq was dominating early in Game 4 on Tuesday, but again came stretches where the ball seldom found him, where Kobe forced shots.

"We've been playing a certain style all year," Shaq said. "Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't. We could play either style.

"But when I'm not doubled like that, I really expect to get the ball a lot, especially when I'm shooting 68 percent from the field. It is simple. And if you don't stick to simplicity, you die a horrible death."

Those screams you're hearing from the dungeon belong to the Lakers.

Shaq and Kobe have managed to build a fragile truce before, particularly during the playoffs, and they probably would have again if a couple of factors had not worked against them.

Simple health, and the lack of players experienced at running Jackson's triangle offense.

The Lakers had rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to defeat the defending-champion Spurs in the conference semifinals. Defeated them four consecutive times. All finally seemed right.

They took care of the Timberwolves in the conference finals and seemed on their way, and probably would have been if Malone had not re-injured his knee early in the Finals opener.

Malone became so central to the Lakers, their touchstone, that they have not been the same as his role shrank by the game.

"We need him," Payton said. "We need his ability to play the game, his smartness, his rebounding. It's hurting us."

There are also the nagging injuries to Fisher, Devean George and Rick Fox. It is now an incomplete team.

Then there is the inability to run Jackson's offense, a struggle throughout the season that became more pronounced against the underrated Pistons.

Payton never has embraced it, Malone has struggled with it. Two veterans long used to other styles, unable to change old ways. And Jackson no longer has the veteran role players who understand how to run it — no Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry or Horace Grant.

Even Monday, four games into the Finals, and Payton was lamenting his inability to play his free game the way he believes Chauncey Billups can with the Pistons.

"Any basketball player would like that," Payton said. "In years past if anybody went at me, I could come back at them any time I wanted by making my own plays for my own cause.

"This is a different system. It's what you give up. It's something I have to live with. I'm living with it and I can't gripe or cry about it right now. We just have to try and get a win and go back."

The five Lakers that were here when Jackson introduced his offense five years ago even approached him before Game 4 about playing more together to properly execute the triangle. Which would mean less time for Payton and the limping Malone.

"It was in no way a slight against the guys who sacrificed money and (the chance) to play different places so they could come here," Fox said. "It's about, hey, if the collective 12 or 13 are searching for a championship and things aren't getting done, everyone should put their egos aside to get there."

"If people aren't executing for whatever reason, put some guys out there that can execute. The important thing about being together for (five) years is there was an inception point.

"It was being birthed to the triangle. There are only five guys left from that. We had to crawl and then walk and then run. And with that comes a certain comfort and understanding of how to do this."

Birthed together, and now so near to being broken apart. This team went as far as it could. Coming close, though, was never going to be enough.

Now comes the fallout. An era has run its course. And they all know it.