PLAYOFF SERIES: NBA Finals; Game 1.
It’s hard to imagine the same result this time.
Fifteen years after the ‘Bad Boys’ helped put a halt to ‘Showtime,’ the Lakers begin what is expected to be a run at their fourth championship in five years as they meet the Pistons in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson knows these Pistons aren’t quite as tough.
“They’re pretty lightweight,” Jackson joked.
Like the team that was swept by Detroit in the title round in 1989, Los Angeles is led by two longtime All-Stars. Back then it was Magic Johnson and James Worthy, now it’s Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Kobe and Shaq, though, have something Magic and Worthy did not have—two other future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup. That duo provides added motivation, with Karl Malone and Gary Payton each looking to win a championship for the first time.
“We’re getting close to playing our best basketball,” Malone said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve been creeping up on it for a while now.”
Los Angeles, with Jackson going for his NBA-record 10th title as a head coach, has a big edge in championship expierence. Pistons coach Larry Brown has never won a title at the professional level, and the only player on the roster to do it is little-used guard Lindsey Hunter (with the Lakers in 2002).
“People have tried to put the ‘Bad Boys II’ label on us, but we’re a totally different team,” Hunter said.
Detroit is considered a heavy underdog to claim its first title since 1990 and end the Eastern Conference’s role as an NBA Finals pushover for the West. The only team from the East to win the championship since the Pistons was Jackson’s Chicago Bulls.
“Everyone wants to see us falter,” O’Neal said. “I just think that sometimes they think that we’re the Yankees of baseball. … We know what it’s going to take. We have to do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Lakers were in turmoil throughout the season and the chaos seemed to carry over into the playoffs, with Bryant’s ongoing sexual assault case and Payton complaining about the offense.
However, Los Angeles has again shown it can step up when the games matter most, beating both San Antonio and Minnesota in six games in the last two rounds. That has the Lakers heading into this series on a huge wave of momentum, playing possibly their best basketball of the season.
“So far in the playoffs, they’ve been able to do what they want, whenever they want it, whenever they need it,” Detroit backup center Elden Campbell said.
Campbell could get a boost in playing time to help defend, and maybe more importantly, to waste fouls against O’Neal.
Guarding O’Neal often will be up to Ben Wallace, though Rasheed Wallace, Campbell and Mehmet Okur should take turns. O’Neal has been a 41.2 percent foul shooter this postseason, and Brown has implied he may resort to putting the Lakers’ superstar at the free-throw line.
“I’ve never done that, but if the guy is going to shoot a layup and he’s a 50 percent free throw shooter, maybe you foul him,” Brown said. “That’s not bad basketball.
“That’s not Hack-a-Shaq. That’s hack anybody who’s not a good free throw shooter.”
Ben Wallace is a two-time defensive player of the year, but he’s better as a help defender than in one-on-one situations and his muscular 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame is still much smaller than O’Neal’s.
Rasheed Wallace has a bigger wingspan than Ben, but doesn’t have the body to keep O’Neal out of the lane, leaving Campbell and Okur as viable options to guard the 340-pounder.
“There’ll probably be a lot of Elden,” O’Neal said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, I don’t see any defense giving us trouble.”
Another intriguing matchup would be between former Philadelphia high school rivals Richard Hamilton and Bryant.
Hamilton has carried the maligned Pistons offense, scoring at least 20 points in every game of the conference finals against Indiana and averaging 21.5 in the postseason.
“It’s going to be fun,” Bryant said. “We’ve played against each other so many times—we were very good friends in high school. He plays the same. (But) he’s gotten so much better.”
Hamilton’s penetration, as well as that of point guard Chauncey Billups, could be limited by O’Neal’s presence because he can be lax defensively against Ben Wallace.
The Lakers will also need Bryant to have a standout series offensively against a vaunted Pistons defense.
Los Angeles, though, has already shown it can beat a defensively tenacious team. Detroit tied for the league lead in scoring defense this season with San Antonio, a team Los Angeles beat four straight games to reach the conference finals.
“I know it’s going to be a tough series,” O’Neal said. “We’re going to have to work for every bucket we get. We just can’t let these guys run wild and block shots.”
While Rasheed Wallace could defend O’Neal at times, the volatile ex-Blazers forward may have his hands full against Malone. The 40-year-old Malone did a very respectable job guarding Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in the last two rounds and he’s averaged 13.1 points and 9.2 rebounds in the playoffs—better numbers than what Wallace has provided on a sore foot.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Pistons - 3rd seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-3, East semifinals; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, East finals. Lakers - 2nd seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-2, West semifinals; beat Minnesota Timberwolves 4-2, West finals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Pistons - Hamilton, 21.5 ppg; Ben Wallace, 14.4 rpg; Billups, 6.1 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 25.1 ppg and 5.8 apg; O’Neal, 13.9 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 1-1. Each team won at home in November. The first meeting was tied after three quarters before Los Angeles pulled out a 94-89 victory at Staples Center on Nov. 14. Four days later, Detroit won 106-96 at home thanks to a 33-point fourth quarter. O’Neal averaged 20.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists, while Bryant was held to 17.5 points per game.