Tuesday, June 15, 2004

PISTONS IN FIVE?: The Detroit Pistons have got the Los Angeles Lakers on the ropes, three games to one, in the NBA Finals. They’ll probably deliver the coup de grace tonight. Fine with me; I’m not much of a Pistons rooter, but I’m a longtime Lakers detractor. (I sometimes feel like a fraud as a sports fan because my rooting interest is often negative-—I’m pulling for somebody to lose—-but that’s a story for another day.) But regardless of that, the series is an interesting spectacle.

Shaquille O’Neal is the most unstoppable force in basketball. He gets 30+ points and 20+ rebounds at whim. But he has a couple of Achilles’ heels (a mental block about shooting free throws, for one), the Lakers can never find him at crucial moments of the game, and it’s always his much smaller, much less talented Detroit counterparts making the big plays in the final minutes.

It’s a recurring theme in the history of basketball: Nobody loves Goliath. First Wilt Chamberlain, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now Shaquille O’Neal-—each one struggled with his status as the biggest, most dominant center in the game. That status brings a heavy physical toll, game after game, from being double-teamed and cheap-shotted by overmatched opponents. It also carries unreasonably high expectations, a lack of appreciation (i.e., his success is genetically preordained), and just plain boredom: How many times do I have to prove that these Lilliputians can’t stop me?

Wilt repeatedly and rather neurotically remodeled his game in response to criticism. (You say I shoot too much? Okay, how about I resolve to be the league’s leading passer and virtually refuse to shoot?) Kareem, although he maintained his cold logical efficiency, suffered a mid-career doldrums when, he once commented, he just showed up at the gym to shoot a few skyhooks. Kareem got a kick in the pants when Magic Johnson joined his team, and the two of them modulated their egos and shared the load of stardom.. They had a long and profitable run together.

When Shaquille got together with Kobe Bryant, they got their championship rings, eventually, but it has never a harmonious union. Neither is a very generous teammate. Shaq struggles with the free-throw shooting bugaboo, with his weight, with foot and leg and abdominal injuries. Kobe obviously has his personal problems these days, but they don't mitigate the fact (you might even say they underline the fact) that he's a prima donna, a lone ranger, brilliant but undisciplined. Kobe craves the spotlight, so much so that he may willingly leave the Lakers for a crummy team where there'll be no question who The Man is.

When Gary Payton and Karl Malone signed with the Lakers, leaving money on the table for a chance to cap their long careers with a title ring, it was clearly a now-or-never strategy. That, plus Kobe’s legal jeopardy, plus Kobe’s and Phil Jackson’s looming free agency, plus the continuing Shaq/Kobe rivalry: it’s just too much drama. The strain began to show in Game 4, with the Lakers bitching at the refs and at each other late in the game. And Malone and Payton have nothing left physically.

Detroit over L.A. would be the biggest, maybe the only, Finals upset in a long, long time. Also, it’s a real rarity for the team without the best single player to win. The Lakers have four Hall of Famers on their team; the Pistons probably don’t have any.

But Detroit deserves lots of credit. They’re balanced; they can hurt their opponents in a lot of different ways. The Pistons were so shrewdly put together. Obviously I haven’t been paying enough attention until recently, but I see lots of reasons why they shouldn’t be all that good. It rather astonished me to watch Ben Wallace shoot a wide-open 12-footer, and airball it, as I think, He’s their best player. Darko Milicic, the third player drafted in 2003, should be a contributing player as a rookie; instead, he’s glued to the bench. Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace always seemed to have talent, but several teams failed to get it out of them before they landed in Detroit. Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are both skinny and “soft” by current NBA standards. Detroit acquired Ben Wallace as part of a trade for Grant Hill; few suspected at the time that Detroit got the better end of that deal. But that’s the name of the game in all the pro team sports nowadays: identifying undervalued commodities. And whaddaya know, it’s still a team sport after all. The Pistons match up well against the Lakers, they work hard, they accept leadership, and they don’t seem to care who gets the credit, as long as they win.

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