Shaq and Kobe Back in Sync at the Right Time
Three months ago I didn’t think I would be making either of these statements: I’m really feeling that Justin Timberlake album, and I’ll take the Lakers over the San Antonio Spurs.
But here we are in May and I find that song “Rock Your Body” surprisingly good, and the Lakers appear ready to beat the Spurs in seven games.
That Laker pick goes against most logic. Everybody knows the Lakers have their biggest problems with power forwards and quick point guards, and the Spurs have one of the best combos going.
If Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett and Troy Hudson gave the Lakers problems in the first round, what’s going to happen with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker?
The Lakers were the worst in the NBA at defending against three-point shots this season, and San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen led the league in three-point shooting.
And didn’t the Spurs beat the Lakers in all four regular-season meetings?
Sometimes you have to simply go with what you like.
As Shaquille O’Neal said, “My wife beat me four times, but I still married her.”
Two years ago, I came this close to picking the Spurs to dethrone the Lakers in the Western Conference. Then I paid attention to how well the Lakers played at the end of the season and came to my senses.
If you were watching the last two games of this first-round series, it’s clear that the NBA is Shaq and Kobe Bryant’s playground and all the other kids are sitting in the sandbox. In the NBA the best players win. Go down your list of champions for the last couple of decades, all of those one-name guys. Magic, Kareem, Bird, Moses, Doc, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem. For at least one point in their careers, they played their positions as well as anyone ever had. Shaq and Kobe are at their “points.”
They’re more effective than ever right now because they’re finally playing together, instead of simply playing on the same team.
“We’ve been communicating with each other much better,” Bryant said. “We know how to play off one another, whether it’s pick-and-roll situations.... We know how to put a lot of pressure on the defense.”
The pressure comes from either O’Neal’s posting up and receiving the ball down low, or Bryant’s driving and delivering the ball to him -- unless he decides to elevate and deliver a facial to somebody’s mug.
To hear Garnett’s post-series analysis, the worst thing that could have happened to the Timberwolves was for O’Neal to complain that he wasn’t getting the ball enough. The second-worst was that the Lakers paid attention to him.
“After Shaq made his comments, everything went through the monster,” Garnett said.
O’Neal just isn’t fair. As Garnett said, “He’s an exception to the clause.”
When the Timberwolves focused on him, O’Neal made them pay by passing back out. Derek Fisher also punished the Timberwolves by making 62% of his three-pointers. The last time Fisher was that hot, the Lakers swept the Spurs in 2001.
The Spurs, with Duncan, David Robinson and Kevin Willis, come as close as possible to containing O’Neal, but all that does is give Bryant the green light to score at will without worrying about upsetting O’Neal.
On defense, the Lakers can get used to a steady dose of the pick-and-roll from San Antonio.
“It’s a mainstay,” said Laker assistant Jim Cleamons, who is responsible for scouting the Spurs. “Whoever Shaq is guarding, we’re going to see a lot of [point guard-power forward, point guard-center] screen-and-rolls. I don’t think they’ll go berserk with it, because once again that takes Duncan to the high post. That’s off his favorite spot. But we’ll see enough screen-rolls.”
I expect more from Parker than last season, his first playoff experience. But I expect Manu Ginobli to go through some similar growing pains this year.
I don’t buy the notion that the Lakers are in San Antonio’s head because the Lakers won eight of the nine playoff games between them in 2001 and 2002.
If you come at Duncan with any of that talk that the Spurs are intimidated or spooked, he’ll look at you as if you’re crazy. The Timberwolves helped diminish some of the Lakers’ aura with the way they took it to them in the middle games of the series.
The Lakers can’t rely on the past. Unfortunately for Bryant, they can’t rely on the Alamodome, either.
Bryant loved that place, the largest venue in the league. The bigger the crowd, the better he seemed to play. He averaged 33 points in the Lakers’ last four playoff games there and produced some of his most memorable sequences -- including that left-handed rebound, right-handed layup over the Spurs’ front line to win Game 4 last year. But this year the Spurs have a new home, the SBC Center.
“I wish it was the Alamo,” Bryant said. “SBC will have to do, I guess.”
Alamo, SBC, wherever. As long as there’s a court and O’Neal and Bryant are standing on it, I’m going with their team.
And, yes, Justin Timberlake too.
J.A. Adande, can be reached at email@example.com.