If Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal had hit upon this solution
several months ago, they would have saved each other a great deal
of aggravation. Unable to agree for most of the season on which
of them should be the Lakers' lead executioner, the two stars
finally decided to do the civilized thing and divide the duties
evenly. There is, after all, no reason that the team should have
to limit itself either to bludgeoning opponents with O'Neal's
power or burning them with Bryant's speed when it can so
comfortably alternate between the two.
It appears that they've settled on having O'Neal, their
gargantuan center, dominate at home while Bryant, their acrobatic
swingman, takes top billing on the road. Or maybe it's that Shaq
does the heavy lifting Monday through Thursday while Kobe works
long weekends. It's not clear how they've divided the workload,
but in light of the way O'Neal and Bryant carved up the
Sacramento Kings in the Lakers' four-game sweep of their Western
Conference semifinals last week, it's obvious that it will take
an exceedingly strong and swift team to keep Los Angeles from
repeating as champion.
The San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 to
advance to the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, are
the only team in the playoffs that seems capable of measuring up.
But now that O'Neal's and Bryant's talents are dovetailing so
neatly--and with guard Derek Anderson, the Spur best equipped to
defend against Bryant, sidelined with a separated shoulder for at
least the early part of the series--even San Antonio will have a
hard time coping with the diversity of the Lakers' attack. With
its 119-113 clincher over the Kings in Game 4, Los Angeles had
won 15 straight games, the last seven in the playoffs.
When asked after Game 4 who would win an L.A.-San Antonio
conference finals, Kings coach Rick Adelman said, "I just got
finished getting hammered by them, so I'd say the Lakers. They
have two great players playing at the top of their games, and if
you get the slightest bit preoccupied with stopping one, the
other will make you pay dearly for it."
If O'Neal wasn't dazing the Kings, Bryant was confusing them. The
first two games were Shaq showcases. He battered Sacramento big
men Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard en route to 44 points and 21
rebounds in Game 1, followed by 43 and 20 in Game 2, making him
the first player in league history to reach the 40-point,
20-rebound mark in back-to-back playoff games. His defensive
presence was also part of the reason that Kings power forward
Chris Webber was largely ineffective inside. Instead he fired
mostly inaccurate jump shots throughout the four games.
When the series moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento for Game 3,
the Kings ganged up on O'Neal, which left them vulnerable to
Bryant's slicing, spinning forays to the basket and to some
breathtaking one-on-one moves that freed him for jump shots.
Bryant finished with 36 points in the Lakers' 103-81 victory.
Then he outdid himself in Game 4. Although O'Neal fouled out in
the fourth quarter with "only" 25 points and 10 rebounds, Bryant
carried Los Angeles home with a 48-point, 16-rebound performance.
By the time they were done with Sacramento, Bryant and O'Neal had
become the third pair of teammates to average more than 30 points
apiece in a series (box, page 49). "People are always saying we
can't coexist, but Shaq and I know what we're capable of
accomplishing together," Bryant said after Game 4. "There's no
way we're going to lose sight of that."
The Lakers are playing more efficiently than they have all
season, perhaps even better than they did during their
championship run last year. The only thing they're having a hard
time doing is keeping a lid on their confidence. O'Neal declared
before Game 3 that he considered Hall of Famer Bill Russell, the
greatest defensive player in NBA history, "too light" to have had
much luck guarding him. Since Russell played at about 220 pounds,
about 120 pounds below O'Neal's weight, no one argued with him,
least of all Divac and Pollard, who didn't put up much resistance
O'Neal used his bulk to dislodge Sacramento defenders and
establish position wherever he wanted to, which was usually so
close to the rim he could simply turn and drop the ball in the
basket. Although Divac complained mildly to both the refs and the
media--and with some justification--that O'Neal should have been
called for fouls on some of his battering-ram moves and that he
was getting away with three-second violations, the bigger problem
for the Kings was that their double teams on O'Neal were
half-hearted. "You can't just double-team Shaq; you have to
double-team him aggressively," says TNT analyst Danny Ainge, who
played and coached against O'Neal. "That takes courage, because
you're probably going to absorb some blows, and let's face it,
nobody really wants to do that."
If O'Neal gets away with the occasional well-placed elbow as he
spins to the basket or with using his derriere to clear a path as
he backs his way toward the hoop, it's largely because he's so
powerful that he effortlessly sends opponents flying. "He can put
a little hip into you or dip his shoulder into you a bit, and it
doesn't look like much to the refs," says Divac. "But he's so
much stronger than anyone else in the league that it's enough to
knock you off balance. If they don't call some of those things,
nobody has any chance against Shaq."
However, O'Neal's uncommon strength sometimes works against him.
He takes significant blows that aren't called fouls because they
don't even make him flinch. In Game 4 Divac tried to slap the
ball out of O'Neal's hands and ended up giving him the equivalent
of a karate chop across the forearms. Most players would have
lost the ball, but because it didn't faze O'Neal, no foul was
called. "The guy gets fouled more than anybody in the league,"
says Pollard, who averaged four fouls a game in just 17 minutes
The bottom line is that O'Neal's life in the pivot is essentially
a series of blows delivered and received. He either fouls or is
fouled, often both, on nearly every possession, and the degree to
which he dominates depends largely on how and when the referees
choose to stop the carousel of contact. In Game 2 he received a
pass in the low post, spun and leaned into Divac as he banked in
the shot, and a foul was called against the Sacramento center. In
Game 4 O'Neal made the identical move but was called for a foul.
"I play my same game every time," he says. "It's not always
called the same way, but I play it the same way."
Bryant seemed to be playing Game 4 with an extra spring in his
step, and as it turned out, he and the Lakers needed it. O'Neal
was hamstrung by foul trouble most of the game and took only two
shots in the fourth quarter. Bryant, who played all 48 minutes,
more than compensated with 15 points in the final period, but
some of his best work was done earlier, when he devastated the
Kings with nine offensive rebounds in the first three quarters.
"He's such a quick jumper, he's like a pogo stick," said
Sacramento's Doug Christie, who was assigned to guard Bryant most
of the game. "He just found ways to beat us today, and that's the
mark of a great player."
Bryant went to the foul line 19 times in both Game 3 and Game 4,
a measure of how helpless the Kings were to stop him. He has such
a quick first step that a defender's first priority has to be to
back off and deny him the drive, but that doesn't begin to solve
the problems he creates. Bryant is one of the few young players
in the league with a polished midrange game, so when his slashes
to the basket are cut off, he can stop and drop in whisper-soft
jumpers. He has curbed his urge to turn every possession into a
ball-handling exhibition, but he's still more than ready to go
one-on-one when the situation calls for it, as it did with 3:09
remaining in Game 4, when O'Neal left with his sixth foul and the
Lakers were clinging to a 106-103 lead.
"You could see in his eyes that he was ready for that moment,"
said Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. "He knew that it was his
time." On successive crucial possessions, Bryant first drew a
foul from Christie on a drive and made one free throw for a
109-107 lead, then pulled up for a short jumper that made it
111-107 with 1:21 to go, terminally deflating the Kings.
O'Neal's early dominance softened the Kings for Bryant, but
against San Antonio that process may be reversed. Without
Anderson, the Spurs' backcourt (page 50) may have difficulty
cutting off Bryant's penetration, and their two 7-footers, Tim
Duncan and David Robinson, may spend a great deal of their time
trying to keep Bryant from getting to the basket. That, in turn,
should give O'Neal more room to operate.
San Antonio poses problems for the Lakers as well. Most teams
agree that one key to neutralizing O'Neal is to make him work on
defense, and the Spurs' big men will certainly make him do that.
Players of their stature may also get some of the foul calls that
Divac and Pollard did not. Los Angeles isn't likely to survive
against the Spurs with its stars taking turns the way they did
against the Kings. L.A. will need to combine Bryant's midair
assaults with O'Neal's punishing ground attack. To beat San
Antonio, the Lakers' two stars will have to make sure they are
both high and mighty.