Paul Westphal, coach of the Pepperdine basketball team and a former NBA all-star and coach of the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics, will analyze the NBA Finals for The Times, as told to Helene Elliott.
In spite of being subjected to "The Weakest Link" at halftime, many horrible calls by the officials, Kobe Bryant commercials, too many NBC talking heads and--probably worst of all--no Charles Barkley, this game was still fantastic for basketball lovers.
The Lakers have so many ways to force double teams or score outright. In Shaquille O'Neal, they have the most unstoppable player in the league. They have an incredible slasher in Bryant. Whenever they run the pick-and-roll with Kobe and any Laker setting the screen, they're sure to get a good shot. They have three-point shooters who can space the floor to protect those great attackers. Philadelphia has only Allen Iverson, who demands the double team.
So here's the question all basketball people must be asking:
How does Philadelphia hang in there?
The answer is the 76ers scramble the game. Dikembe Mutombo is a master at flopping when Shaq gives him a little contact. The 76ers constantly try to have more quickness on the floor than the Lakers so they can pressure full-court and keep the Lakers from picking them apart with their offensive execution. They force Kobe to drive to the basket, where Mutombo is waiting to block the shot or to foul him--which often is not called.
That's not to say the 76ers have benefited from the officiating more than the Lakers have. The game at this intensity is almost impossible to get right. The 76ers believe O'Neal wantonly clears out the lane and that if Fisher and Tyronn Lue were any closer to Iverson, it would be illegal in some states. It only serves to make the game more intriguing, because you're never quite sure what's going to happen when the whistle blows.
Offensively, the 76ers wanted to attack early or attack late. If they could get a quick shot in the open floor off a turnover, they would, otherwise the plan was to milk the shot clock and keep the Lakers on defense as long as possible. The Lakers' defense has been outstanding, or they'd be trailing this series. Especially Robert Horry. I thought he was the most valuable player Sunday at both ends of the floor. Because of his versatility and size, the Lakers can use him as a wild card, and he's the one player Philadelphia has had the hardest time matching up against. He can switch off onto any player defensively, and offensively, he's able to hit the three-pointer or slash to the basket. Not to mention his playoff composure.
Sometimes, games come down to which team can make shots. Shaq was decent at the foul line, which was a great advantage for the Lakers. Iverson was only decent at the foul line, which was fatal for the 76ers. Aaron McKie had an open three and missed; Horry had a wide-open three and hit it.
Although it might seem the 76ers got a break when O'Neal fouled out, they didn't. I thought it was interesting that when O'Neal fouled out, Laker Coach Phil Jackson forced Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown to remove Mutombo. Mutombo was the NBA's defensive player of the year and he had no one to guard because Jackson put a quicker, more versatile team on the floor than the 76ers could match.
I still feel Iverson will have to average 45 points the rest of the way just to make this thing go seven.