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NBA FINALS: SCOUTING REPORT

Scouting Report

June 06, 2004|Jerry Crowe

STARTERS

* Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, of course, are two of the NBA's brightest stars, the engines that drive the Lakers in pursuit of their fourth title in five years. Joining them this season were Karl Malone and Gary Payton, distinguished veterans who hoped to add a championship to their resumes before retirement. Devean George is the only Laker starter without Hall of Fame credentials. The Pistons, meanwhile, are a group of castoffs that has found its way in Detroit. Richard Hamilton is the offensive leader, a tireless 6-foot-7 guard who has averaged 21.5 points in the playoffs. Ben Wallace, a two-time defensive player of the year, anchors a suffocating defense. Point guard Chauncey Billups, forward-center Rasheed Wallace and small forward Tayshaun Prince round out a solid starting five. EDGE: Lakers.

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BENCH

* Derek Fisher, a reserve only because of Payton, is invaluable to the Lakers, though he may be slowed by a sore knee. His game-winning shot against the San Antonio Spurs was the play of the playoffs. Rick Fox, like Fisher, is a former starter and title-winning veteran, and Slava Medvedenko and Kareem Rush also have had their moments, Rush especially in the clincher against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when he made six three-point shots. Corliss Williamson, a former starter, is the Pistons' sixth man. Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur, a pair of 7-footers, probably will get more time than usual against the Lakers, thrown into the fray to slow O'Neal. EDGE: Lakers.

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OFFENSE

* O'Neal, a three-time Finals most valuable player, is the NBA's greatest offensive force, and Bryant probably the league's best one-on-one player. Bryant has averaged 25.1 points in the playoffs, O'Neal 20 on 57.8% shooting. The Lakers are at their best when the offense flows through O'Neal, as O'Neal will happily tell anyone who will listen, because it opens the outside for everybody else. Malone has averaged 13.1 points in the playoffs and is third on the team in assists, behind Bryant and Payton. Hamilton, who never stops moving, hopes to wear down Bryant by making his former high school rival chase him all over the court. Hamilton was the only consistent scoring threat for either team in the Pistons' elimination of the Indiana Pacers in the East finals. Billups has averaged 15.2 points in the playoffs, Rasheed Wallace 13 and Ben Wallace 10.1, but as a team the Pistons have made barely 40% of their shots. EDGE: Lakers.

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DEFENSE

* Though the Lakers, as usual, have cranked up the intensity during the playoffs, no team in the NBA plays a more consistently stifling defense than the Pistons. They held opponents to 84.3 points a game in the regular season, the third-lowest scoring average in NBA history, and in the East finals limited the Pacers to 72.7, the lowest average for a conference finalist in the shot-clock era. And in Rasheed Wallace, acquired in a February trade, they have a 6-foot-11 inside presence who matches up better against O'Neal than the 6-9 Ben Wallace does. Bryant probably will be assigned to Hamilton. Payton will need help to contain Billups, who is younger, faster and more athletic. One advantage for the Lakers: Ben Wallace isn't much of a shooter, so O'Neal should be able to stay close to the basket. EDGE: Pistons.

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COACHING

* Phil Jackson goes for his 10th NBA title, which would break a tie with Red Auerbach atop the all-time list, while Larry Brown goes for his first after taking the Philadelphia 76ers to the Finals three years ago and losing to the Lakers. Jackson is the mild-mannered CEO pushing all the right buttons for a talent-laden roster, as he was with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The well-traveled Brown, in his first season with the Pistons after replacing the hastily dismissed Rick Carlisle last June, is the consummate teacher, continually prodding his charges to "play the right way" and not give in to bad habits and lapses in energy. A Hall of Famer, he may ultimately be remembered as the greatest coach who never won an NBA championship. EDGE: Lakers.

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KEYS TO THE SERIES

* Even if they didn't hold the home-court advantage, the Lakers probably would be heavily favored because of their enormous edge in playoff experience, if nothing else. The only Pistons who have ever made it this far in the playoffs are reserves Lindsey Hunter and Elden Campbell, who played in the Finals for the Lakers. The Lakers, though, need to stay patient and not get frustrated by the Pistons' physical play, and they need to match the Pistons' intensity. For the Pistons, the key is slowing O'Neal, which of course is easier said than done. Otherwise, they need to push the tempo in an effort to tire the Lakers, but that won't be easy in the Finals because of all the TV timeouts that will give the veteran Lakers a chance to catch their breath. In 1989, the last time these teams met in the Finals, the Pistons took advantage of Laker injuries to sweep. If the Lakers avoid injuries this time around, they should win.

* PREDICTION: Lakers in six games.

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-- Jerry Crowe

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