- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Rik Smits is expected to be in the Pacers' starting lineup against the Lakers tonight.

That is his first mistake.

His second is to be unsteady around light breezes. Two wrongs don't make a right with Shaquille O'Neal.

Theirs is not a matchup, Smits vs. O'Neal. It is Tibet vs. China. Call the Dalai Lama. Maybe two teams can play the Zen game.

Matchups determine the NBA's seven-month struggle. No one is a match for O'Neal, not counting the free throw line. Smits takes the mismatch to the extreme.

Smits falls down after the slightest provocation. His balance is not the best. That could be because he is built like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Most players try to bring good energy to the workplace. Smits is the rare player who tries to bring good balance.

Larry Bird keeps track of Smits' balance and often refers to it in his postgame discourses. Statisticians keep track of Smits' rebounds and fouls.

Smits is a threat to have more fouls than rebounds in a game, which is not good if you're a 7-foot-4 center. In 16 playoff games, Smits has 55 fouls and 54 rebounds.

That is some kind of balance, although not necessarily a good kind.

The way balance is mentioned around Smits, you would think he has an inner-ear condition. He probably will fall down the first time he feels O'Neal's hot breath.

The Trail Blazers blunted O'Neal with a number of large bodies, starting with Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-3 Twinkle Toes from Lithuania.

Bird has no such resources at his disposal. He has only Smits, the balance-challenged native of Holland.

They call Smits the "Dunking Dutchman" only out of habit. Bad feet grounded most of his aerial activities a long time ago. His size 21 feet are a challenge to shoemakers as well.

Smits plays incredibly small. If he played any smaller, he would be microscopic. A 6-2 guard, Charlie Ward, blocked his shot in the conference finals.

O'Neal can't be worried. Smits poses no more obstacle to O'Neal than a highway cone. In fact, some highway cones are quicker than Smits.

O'Neal has strength, bulk, speed, quickness and rapping ability on Smits. Other than that, theirs is a fairly even matchup.

Sam Perkins is obligated to replace Smits. He has arms that stretch from the court to the cheap seats and is working on his sixth or seventh different hairstyle in the last few seasons. You might think he is working on a mid-life crisis. At 38, Perkins qualifies.

Of course, the Lakers would not have advanced to the NBA Finals if the Trail Blazers had not come down with a severe case of alligator arms in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Alligator arms are accompanied by big eyes, shortness of breath and a lump in the throat. Good night, Scottie.

So O'Neal and the Lakers no longer have an aura of invincibility about them. If anything, they appear almost as mentally fragile as their opponent. They, too, had demons to exorcise.

But the Lakers feature O'Neal, who makes two of most centers and whatever he wants of stick figures. Smits picked up five fouls in 12 minutes the last time the two met in early March.

In their favor, the Pacers can score. They led the NBA in 3-point shooting and free throw shooting this season. Even Smits is an able shooter, if not a challenge for O'Neal on the perimeter when he is able to stay on the floor.

The Pacers are not bashful behind the 3-point arc and have a collection of quick triggers: Perkins, Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson, Travis Best, Austin Croshere and Chris Mullin. That is a lot of firepower, and a lot of floor for a defense to cover.

Miller and Rose pose the trickiest dilemma for the Zen master. Kobe Bryant can't defend both, although the 21-year-old prodigy is liable to try.

Bryant became vulnerable when required to defend the low post against the Trail Blazers. The post-up is a valid part of Rose's package, not Miller's.

The Pacers have enough weapons to make it interesting.

But the Lakers have O'Neal, the homecourt advantage and a celebration to plan after six games.

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