- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

MJ, Wilt the Stilt — and Shaq?

Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain generally are considered the best NBA players ever, and Shaquille O’Neal will get a chance to demonstrate he belongs in that elite company when his Los Angeles Lakers face the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals starting tonight at Staples Center.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan in Chicago and faced Chamberlain as a player, last week called O’Neal “the most dominant player physically” the league has seen. Jackson — who is seeking a record 10th NBA championship as a coach — added that O’Neal would “easily be the most unguardable player ever” if he could make free throws.

Shaq’s presence is the primary problem confronting the Pistons. Maybe their championship “Bad Boys” teams of 1989 and 1990 with Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman could have contained O’Neal. It’s highly doubtful their current crew can.

Asked what defensive schemes he might employ against O’Neal, Detroit coach Larry Brown replied, “I have no idea. … We understand how great a player Shaquille is, and we just have to do the very best we can to make it difficult for him. We can’t change the way we play and the things that we have done to get us here. I think the biggest challenge we have is [to avoid] worrying about how we play.”

Heading into the series, O’Neal is averaging 20 points and 13.9 rebounds. However, he traditionally ratchets up his play in the finals. During the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000 through 2002, O’Neal averaged 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds and made nearly 60 percent of his shots from the floor. He is the only player other than Jordan to be named finals MVP three consecutive seasons.

Just like the Philadelphia 76ers team Brown coached to the finals in 2001, this Pistons team wins with defense. Through 18 postseason games, Detroit is holding opponents to 38.5 percent shooting and 80.5 points. The Pistons are shooting 40.7 percent and averaging 86.1 points.

Despite the presence of Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace — one of three Wizards castoffs in the Detroit starting lineup along with Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace — only Hamilton has emerged as a true scoring threat.

Offensively, though, only Hamilton has emerged as a true scoring threat in the playoffs. As strong as he has been — his game is a combination of Reggie Miller’s continuous motion and Allan Houston’s midrange shooting — he is not as good as the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, with whom he has battled since the two were high school players in suburban Philadelphia.

What the Pistons have going for them that Minnesota didn’t in the Western Conference finals are more bodies to send against O’Neal. League MVP Kevin Garnett was the lone effective big man on the Timberwolves’ frontline. But the Pistons have the Wallaces, Mehmet Okur and Elden Campbell to stick in his face.

O’Neal will catch a break in that Ben Wallace, averaging only 10.1 points in the playoffs, will be his likely defensive assignment. Brown said it is imperative for Wallace to generate some offense against O’Neal.

“It’s important for Ben to be an offensive threat — he’s got to get involved,” Brown said. “He’s going to be open, and he’s going to have opportunities to get other people shots and opportunities for himself.”

Thus far O’Neal has not been dominant offensively, perhaps because he has averaged just 13.1 shots in the postseason. Following a Game5 loss to the Timberwolves, O’Neal griped about not getting the ball enough, but that was a first. Usually, he appears at ease with a more limited role, having matured to the point where victories matter far more than individual numbers.

“I can do other things,” O’Neal said. “If they need me to take 20, 24 shots, I’ll be there. As long as we’re winning, that’s fine. If we’re not winning, then everybody has a problem, including me.”

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