So You Want To Shackle Shaq... What will it take to stop the Lakers in the NBA Finals? Here are some helpful hints (a few involving the Big You-Know-Who)

June 06, 2004

Like a prom queen in a new pair of heels, the Los Angeles Lakers
stride imperiously into their fourth NBA Finals in five years,
trying to hide the fact that they feel a little bit wobbly. They
shouldn't lose and they probably won't lose, but they most
assuredly could lose--to either of the possible Eastern
Conference champs, the Indiana Pacers or the Detroit Pistons.
You know how some teams can't ever be counted out? The Lakers
can't ever be counted in. ¶ It took L.A. six games to dispatch
the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western final, the end
finally coming on Monday night at Staples Center with a 96-90
purple-and-gold victory. The T-Wolves played most of the series
without their two top point guards--Sam Cassell (back spasms)
averaged only 12.8 minutes in five games, while Troy Hudson
(ankle surgery) didn't suit up at all--and with a rotation at
center (Ervin Johnson, Michael Olowokandi, Mark Madsen and
Oliver Miller) that was overmatched by Shaquille O'Neal, "the
monster down low," as Minnesota guard Trenton Hassell called
him. Yet the Lakers nearly let the series go the distance. "As
long as they have Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq," said T-Wolves coach
Flip Saunders, "they're the favorites. It might seem like
they're vulnerable, but you have to play extremely well to beat
them."

Of course you do. But the thought that a team with four future
Hall of Famers could lose to the East in a Finals scheduled to
begin on Sunday is no longer ludicrous. Doubts have been raised
about power forward Karl Malone and point guard Gary Payton, the
free agents who arrived last summer with their ring fingers
premeasured but who have performed erratically in the postseason;
about starting small forward Devean George, who stumbled through
three games in his hometown of Minneapolis (4 of 20 from the
field, 1 for 11 from three-point range) as if lost in dense fog;
and about a bench whose only reliable contributor is guard Derek
Fisher. Throw into that mix one lingering problem: O'Neal's gripe
that from time to time his fellow Lakers, Bryant in particular,
don't look for him enough. "Ask my teammates, the guys who have
the ball," he said last Saturday, when asked why he put up only
11 shots during a 98-96 Game 5 loss at the Target Center.

Still, it will take a superb effort by either Detroit or Indiana
to beat back the Big Bellyacher and his playmates. What's the
surest way to pull off the upset? SI ran that question by
coaches, players and scouts (all of whom requested anonymity).
While one Western scout offered a facile solution--"The best way
to beat them is to run over Shaq and Kobe with a pickup truck
before they get to the arena"--a more reasonable battle plan
emerged.

--The Lakers are at their most formidable when they run a
controlled, half-court offense, so use full-court pressure as
much as possible, even if it's only token man-to-man or a loose
zone. This can disrupt Bryant's rhythm in particular and increase
the chances that he'll heave up a clock-beating shot. "You have
to turn Kobe into a volume shooter," says one coach. "You want
him to take as many shots as he has points." In the Lakers' four
wins over Minnesota, Bryant averaged 24.0 points on 18.3 shots;
in the two losses, 25.0 on 21.5.

Also, full-court pressure wears on Bryant, who bears much of the
ball-handling responsibility, as well as on the 35-year-old
Payton. That, in turn, can force Lakers coach Phil Jackson to go
to his bench more often than he'd like. "Once you get past Fish,"
said one player, "they don't have anybody who scares you." (That
was before guard Kareem Rush unexpectedly hit 6 of 7 threes to
bail out L.A. in Game 6.)

--Los Angeles is a "high" team when it begins its half-court
sets--that is, Malone and George venture well above the foul line
to get the initiating pass from a guard--but even from there the
forwards can dump it in to O'Neal on the blocks. Make them
receive the ball four or five feet farther from the basket,
though, and Shaq will then have to move out to get the entry
pass, negating the huge advantage he has when he receives the
ball deep.

--In the Timberwolves series O'Neal got off to such slow starts in
the two losses that he was outscored in the first half by Johnson
(5-4 in Game 2) and Madsen (6-5 in Game 5). That was due, in
part, to Minnesota's ability to mix up its double teams: Jump
Shaq immediately on some possessions, wait until he puts the ball
on the floor on others. And just as the Timberwolves did with
7-foot Kevin Garnett, double with a long-armed defender; little
guys bother him only to the extent that gnats bother a sunning
hippo. Of the two Eastern teams the Pistons are better equipped
to play shackle-a-Shaq: Starting center Ben Wallace is nothing if
not a premier interior defender, and possible help will come from
Rasheed Wallace, Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince and Elden Campbell,
all of whom are sufficiently long-limbed.

Be aware, too, that Shaq has become predictable, usually going to
his righthanded jump hook when he's on the right block, usually
spinning toward the baseline for a power move when he's on the
left. And the Eastern finalist should make sure its big men get
out and run. Though neither team is known for its fast break,
both the Pistons (with the Wallaces) and the Pacers (with
Jermaine O'Neal and Jeff Foster) are capable of siphoning gas
from the Diesel's tank.

--If you can't bait Kobe into forcing shots, get the ball out of
his hands whenever possible. Bryant is not only L.A.'s best
shooter but also its most creative distributor, a player who
frequently drives and leaps with no idea of what he's going to do
with the ball yet is able to go through various options before
finding the right man. One way to stifle Bryant is by
double-teaming him on pick-and-rolls, which Minnesota did
effectively in Game 5. If Bryant has one weakness, it's his
stubborn belief that he can extricate himself from any
predicament. To elude a double team he sometimes dribbles around
madly, almost to midcourt, draining time off the 24-second clock.

It goes without saying that Kobe must be guarded by a team's best
perimeter defender, which means that small forwards will
challenge him in the Finals, be it Detroit's 6'9" Prince or
Indiana's Ron Artest, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

--Most important, go hard at the Lakers early, and if that doesn't
work, keep challenging them. Break their spirit with effort, as
the T-Wolves did in Game 5 after L.A. took a 10-point lead in the
first quarter. "They do not have the killer instinct, and they
will back down," said one player. Offers a coach, "It used to be
when you had them down 12, they'd beat you by 20. Now, when you
get a lead, you can hold them off. They won't make a charge." The
Lakers know this about themselves, which makes it all the more
frustrating. "We have a tendency to be fat and lazy," says
Jackson, adding that before Game 5 he was angered by what he
called a "giddy" ambience in the locker room.

"We're our own biggest obstacle," says reserve forward Rick Fox.
"Until we sense urgency, we tend to float, and sometimes we float
ourselves right out of games. It's unprofessional and
embarrassing, but it's a characteristic of this team."

And one that makes the Finals intriguing. Both the Pistons and
the Pacers are hearty competitors who are well-coached (as the
Timberwolves were) and able to make adjustments that will, at
times, stymie Los Angeles. Before bowing to the San Antonio Spurs
last season, the Lakers needed six games to win in '00, five in
'01 and four in '02. This time they will most likely be extended
to the max, but, in the end, the prettiest girl at the prom will
claim the crown--but not before the Eastern finalist has made her
feel even more uncertain in her heels.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LONG NIGHTS The 6'9" Madsen couldn't handle Shaq, but double-teaming and forcing him to set up higher can slow him down. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PISCES RISING Fisher has been the only consistent contributor off the Lakers' anemic bench during the postseason. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH THE ART OF DENIAL There are two ways to play Bryant: Force him to give up the ball or bait him into trying to do too much.

"They do not have the killer instinct," says one player, "and
they will BACK DOWN."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)