Mastery of Endgame Sets Lakers Apart

Henry Bibby has coached the USC men’s basketball team for the last eight seasons, the highlight being the Trojans’ advance to the Elite Eight in 2001. He was the point guard and an eventual All-American on three consecutive national championship teams at UCLA (1970-'72) and directed the Bruins to an 87-3 record as a starter. He played for nine seasons in the NBA, one of them with the title-winning ’73 Knicks. He will serve as The Times’ guest columnist for the NBA Finals.


A suggestion about this season’s NBA Finals: If you like Detroit to win, perhaps it would be best to stay out of Las Vegas for a few weeks.

I’ve said, right from the first day, that the Lakers would win.


I know they are a hard team to figure. They get bored. They don’t stay focused. They’re like the old Celtics or Yankees. They are so good that they know, somehow or someway, that in the end, they will win.

It’s a feeling. You can see it when you live it. That was the way we felt back in the early ‘70s, when I was at UCLA. The other teams would come in, and they’d be all optimistic about how they could do well against us. But then, at the end, we would know what to do and how to do it, and we would win.

The Pistons are a great team. They’ve had a great season and deserve lots of credit. But the Lakers ... well, what more can I say? I don’t think you can beat them now. I thought Sacramento had a chance, but once it was gone, the Lakers were on their way.

Even when they got down, 2-0, to San Antonio, and everybody got down on them, it was mostly a matter of getting bored. That has to be the toughest thing Phil Jackson faces in coaching these guys. They get bored.

But then, look what happens. Half the time, Kobe Bryant doesn’t even start playing until the third quarter. And then he just goes out and decides to beat you. And, often, he does.

Just think about what you have on this team. Besides Bryant, you’ve got Karl Malone. Now this is somebody I’ve really learned to like and respect. What an ego he doesn’t have!

He has something like 37,000 points and is second in the league only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and he is the Lakers’ third option. He is the ultimate team player. When he was with Utah and taking 25 shots a game, I thought he was a selfish player. He comes here, guards the toughest forward on the other team and is still giving them 13 points a night in the playoffs. He goes from being the big shot in Utah to a third wheel here. You have to respect that.

Gary Payton is savvy. He is up there in guys’ faces. He really has the mental game since he has been here.

But the whole deal centers on Shaquille O’Neal. I’m amazed at how, sometimes, this team loses sight of what is the main factor on making the Lakers who they are. They stray. They forget that Shaq is there, and the other guys try to do it without him.

And they sure shouldn’t forget. I’ve never seen anything like him, and I’ve seen Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Walton and Willis Reed. This guy is even harder to stop. He shoots something like 58% from the field, and no other Laker is even close to 50%.

That’s where it is really going to be impossible for the Pistons, and that’s where I think Elden Campbell could become a factor. He hasn’t been playing that much, and I’m not sure why, but this is somebody who has been around, who knows how to play, has played well for the Lakers in the past and has played against Shaq. He is the Pistons’ best hope. Ben Wallace is too small to handle Shaq, and so is Rasheed Wallace.

Other than Elden, I just don’t think the Pistons have anybody to guard Shaq.

Another thing. The Pistons are showing up at a really bad time. Things are happening to the Lakers, such as having Derek Fisher and Kareem Rush find their range and win games. They are both playing more like stars than role players right now.

So it begins today. It will be fun. It is always fun.

But like I said, if you are a big Piston fan, take my advice: Avoid Vegas.