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NBA FINALS: LAKERS

Shaq Is Ready to Rumble

Laker center, who already has gone up against Yao, Duncan and Garnett, expects more physical play from Pistons.

June 06, 2004|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Shaquille O'Neal scanned the reporters crowded around him, located the questioner and glowered.

The question had seemed innocuous enough -- "Do you think you'll spend some time chasing Rasheed Wallace around the court?" -- but it didn't sit well with O'Neal.

"Chase?" O'Neal said. "No. Not at all."

It was an answer and an affirmation that O'Neal continues to be the centerpiece of the Lakers, despite a drop in his playoff scoring average. The game will come to him in the NBA Finals, not the other way around.

He says he has seen it all. It would be difficult to argue the point.

O'Neal has already withstood Yao Ming in Houston, Tim Duncan and Rasho Nesterovic in San Antonio, and Kevin Garnett and the mob of mediocre centers thrown at him by Minnesota.

In seasons past, he emerged as the better big man in successive championships series against Rik Smits, Dikembe Mutombo and whoever the New Jersey Nets sent his way.

Detroit's defense-by-committee approach does not seem to concern O'Neal.

"They have a lot of big bodies," he said. "It's nothing that I haven't seen before. The more fouls they use, the more careful that they'll have to play so they don't get in foul trouble. It doesn't scare me that they're going to use their fouls. I've been getting fouled for 12 years."

Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace will be in the starting lineup, with Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur coming off the bench.

Rasheed Wallace will probably get the head-to-head matchup with O'Neal, although he figures to get plenty of double-team help. Wallace and O'Neal often guarded each other in the Lakers' memorable seven-game victory over Portland in the 2000 Western Conference finals, a series and a matchup that "went relatively well for us," Laker Coach Phil Jackson recalled last week.

Wallace, a better outside shooter than most post players, will try to draw O'Neal out of the key. An empty lane, in theory, means more room to drive for Detroit's perimeter players, specifically Richard Hamilton.

O'Neal is already anticipating such a strategy.

"Rasheed brings a lot of pep to them," he said. "He's a good rebounder and has always been a good shooter, always been a very vocal player. He's probably going to want to go out and shoot jumpers. I'm just going to go where I go, and do what I do."

Ben Wallace, at 6 feet 9 a bit undersized to guard O'Neal, is a two-time NBA defensive player of the year. He was second in the league with 12.4 rebounds and 3.04 blocked shots a game, and was seventh with 1.77 steals a game in the regular season.

But his offensive skills are so limited that he was often left unguarded against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. He averaged 7.8 points in the series.

Campbell, the Lakers' first-round selection in 1990, also will be thrown at O'Neal. He is averaging only 6.2 minutes in the playoffs, but is familiar with O'Neal's style and could double his playing time.

Okur is a 6-11 outside scoring threat who, like Rasheed Wallace, will try to entice O'Neal out to the wing.

As a whole, the Pistons have one of the league's better defenses.

They have allowed more than 95 points once in 18 playoff games, a 127-120 triple-overtime loss to New Jersey. In Game 2 of the conference finals, they had 19 blocked shots, second-most in playoff history.

But, as Laker guard Derek Fisher said, "I don't know if Shaq worries a lot about people blocking his shot."

O'Neal is averaging 20 points and 13.1 shots in the playoffs, well below his career playoff averages of 28.1 and 19.4.

He averaged 20.5 points in two regular-season games against the Pistons and is already predicting a series that will be "football-like."

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