Thursday , Jun , 03 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Matchups to watch in the NBA Finals

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – The explosive Los Angeles Lakers against the defensive-
minded Detroit Pistons should make for an exciting NBA Finals. There are some
key matchups that could be determining factors as to which team walks away
with the coveted NBA title.

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (LAKERS) VS. BEN WALLACE & RASHEED WALLACE (PISTONS)
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Detroit’s starting center Ben Wallace is the catalyst for the Pistons’
success on defense. In the past teams have decided to exhaust as many fouls
as possible on Shaquille O’Neal, who struggles at the foul line. By using as
many players as possible to defend Shaq, LA’s opponents have gambled that
O’Neal’s poor foul shooting would play out to be the equivalent of a turnover.

The two-time All-Star Wallace, who will also see some minutes at power
forward, is too valuable for the Pistons to send on the court just to
rack up fouls against O’Neal. The Detroit starting center is not a force
offensively, but he is not afraid to do the dirty work and is dominant on the
boards on both ends of the court. Even though Wallace is not a big-time
scorer, he sets important screens that help Detroit’s shooters get open for
their shots.

Rasheed Wallace will also get his chance to guard LA’s monster in the middle.
Rasheed, who guarded Shaq many times during his stint in Portland, knows what
to expect when battling the Lakers’ center in the postseason. During the 2000
Western Conference finals, Rasheed’s assignment was to stop O’Neal, who led
the Lakers over the Trail Blazers in seven games.

Shaq is a monster down low. He clears space around the basket with is massive
size and makes opposing players think twice about driving into the lane. The
32-year-old O’Neal can dominate on both ends of the court and is going to be
very difficult for Detroit to contain. O’Neal is 7-1 and weighs 340 pounds,
while Wallace checks in at 6-9, 240 pounds.

The Lakers will get Shaq as many touches as possible. LA’s offense will run
through O’Neal, who should be able to pass the ball out to his teammates for
the open jumper when he is getting double-teamed down low.

Detroit will try to play Shaq straight up with one Wallace at a time. The
“hack-a-Shaq” would not be beneficial for the Pistons to use, as the Wallaces
are more important on the court than on the bench. Detroit’s duo will get
help from their teammates, who will not hesitate to double-team LA’s
intimidating force in the middle. Both players will double-down when the other
is guarding O’Neal.

Unfortunately for the Pistons, the fact is that Shaq is too big for the
Wallaces to handle straight up. When Detroit gives the Wallaces help
defensively against O’Neal, the Lakers’ player that is left alone will be able
to take advantage of the open shots.

KOBE BRYANT (LAKERS) VS. RICHARD HAMILTON (PISTONS)
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Kobe Bryant is arguably the best shooting guard in the NBA, while Richard
Hamilton has started to emerge as on of the top No. 2 guards in the league.

Bryant is making his fourth appearance in the NBA Finals. The six-time All-
Star has been solid for the Lakers in the postseason and has never been one to
shy away from taking the big shot at a critical time of the game. He has led
LA in scoring (25.1 ppg) and assists (5.8) in the first three rounds of the
playoffs and has the ability to carry the Lakers on his back when they are
having trouble putting up points.

Hamilton has shined in the postseason for the Pistons. He has averaged a team-
high 21.5 points per game to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per
game. The 26-year-old Hamilton has raised his game to level of the elite
shooting guards in the league, as he has knocked down timely shots and has
proven that he can take a team on his back.

The key to this matchup is Bryant’s defense. Bryant, who was named to the NBA
All-Defensive first team, will give Hamilton much more problems than
Milwaukee’s Michael Redd, New Jersey’s Kerry Kittles or Indiana’s Reggie
Miller. Hamilton did have to deal with the Pacers’ Ron Artest, who was the
NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, at times in the conference finals. But
Bryant will be on Hamilton every time he touches the ball.

Both players will get their points, but Hamilton will have to work a lot
harder to earn his which could wear on him physically. Bryant is a proven
superstar in the league, while Hamilton, who shoulders a big portion of
Detroit’s scoring, is starting to find his way.

This is not the series that will see Hamilton show Bryant that there is a new
sheriff in town. Kobe is top dog and will give the Pistons’ leading scorer a
lesson that he will not soon forget.

PHIL JACKSON (LAKERS) VS. LARRY BROWN (PISTONS)
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Phil Jackson is in search of his 10th championship ring as a coach. He
led the Lakers to three titles in his first four years in LA, and guided the
Chicago Bulls to six championships. Jackson is 44-0 all-time in postseason
series when his team has a lead in any point of the series.

Detroit’s Larry Brown is one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA.
Brown, who left the Philadelphia 76ers after they fell to the Pistons in six
games in the 2003 conference semis, was hired by Detroit’s president of
basketball operations Joe Dumars last offseason to get the Pistons, who were
swept in last year’s conference finals by the Nets, over the hump and into
the finals.

Brown has coached in the NBA Finals once in his career, as he did guide
Allen Iverson and the 76ers to the championship round in 2001.
Philadelphia would fall in five games to Jackson and the Lakers.

These two coaches are not big fans of each other. In the past, Brown has been
critical of Jackson’s coaching style. However, the fact remains that both of
these generals are the right person to lead their respective squads.

Strategy will play a big part in the outcome of this series. Brown tried to
contain Shaq with Dikembe Mutombo in the 2001 Finals and was not successful.
The Detroit coach is going to be put to the test in this set, as he will
constantly have to adjust his lineup to whatever Jackson puts on the court for
LA.

Brown has more to work with this year than he had in 2001. But Jackson should
be able to give Brown a constant headache with his ability to shuffle his
lineup, which will cause all sorts of matchup problems for the Pistons.

Both coaches will try to give their players the best chance to be successful
in this series. Brown is a genius when it comes to diagramming plays and
taking advantage of other teams’ weaknesses. The problem for the Detroit
leader is that the Lakers don’t have many weaknesses. LA’s worst enemy is
itself, and when things are going bad Jackson knows how to calm the storm
and right the ship.

DET LAL