Sports Nut

To Starve the Lakers, Feed Shaq

The worst mistake the Philadelphia 76ers can make in their approach to the NBA Finals is to believe they have a serious chance to win. They do not. The ineffaceable calculus is this: The Sixers have one great player and an above-average supporting cast, and the Lakers have two great players and an above-average supporting cast. That adds up to the Lakers in five.

There are two things the Sixers can do to avoid this fate. The first is obvious. Allen Iverson has to play like a madman. But even if Iverson scores 70 points a night, it won’t be enough. The Sixers must also do something to disrupt the Kobe-Shaq love-fest that has made the Lakers unbeatable since April 1. The Lakers’ two stars must be persuaded to loathe each other again. Now, it’s possible that a little bad blood could propel Shaq and Kobe to even greater heights. (As this “Sports Nut” argued, feuding can win championships.) But it might just provide the Sixers with the edge they need to pull off an upset.

How can it be done? Here’s a scenario. You pick one guy, Shaq or Kobe, focus all your defensive pressure on him, and shut him down as completely as you can. Make him pay for every bucket. Drape three guys all over him every time he touches the ball.

Meanwhile, try not to worry as the other guy has a monster game. In fact, do not even worry if Rick Fox lights you up for 30 points. It would be embarrassing to sit by and let that happen, but you have to focus on your long-term objective. Your goal is to make Kobe or Shaq feel cut out of their team’s success. Get one of them angry and frustrated. Make him feel the resentment he must still harbor for the other.

By one measure, Shaq would be your ideal candidate for this clampdown. His feelings get hurt somewhat easily, and he is as sensitive as a seven-footer can be. But unfortunately for the Sixers, Shaq’s game is just about indestructible. Once he’s got the ball in his hands, the outcome is all but assured. Put three guys on him in the paint, and he’s skilled at passing the ball out for a wide-open 15-footer. Shaq cannot be shut down.

For all practical purposes, Kobe can’t be, either. The difference is that nobody’s ever tried the sort of drastic measures on him that have been tried routinely on Shaq. Nobody has ever sent three players charging at him for a whole game. Nobody’s ever singled him out for vicious trapping and pressing. One of the reasons nobody’s done it (and stuck to it for a whole game) is that it smacks of amateurism. It’s the kind of thing some hopeless 16th seed in the NCAA tournament might do in a first-round matchup against North Carolina.

The other reason is that it’s risky. You have to keep it up even as it results in easy buckets all over the place. Kobe is a brilliant passer, and he will get the ball to an open man. You’ll have to sit there and watch as he dribbles through all five of your guys and soars to the rack for sensational dunks. This will happen repeatedly. But if you keep the pressure on, even to the point of dropping a game or two, Kobe could possibly go a little mental.

You’re counting on him to resort to his old petulant ways, to feel unappreciated and dissed when he looks at the box score at the end of the game and sees that Shaq scored 58 points while he got 12. That’s the old way. The new way is Shaq gets 35 and Kobe gets 35. This is the perfect balance Phil Jackson has struck. If the Sixers can find a way to throw it out of whack, to get people thinking and saying that it’s Shaq’s world and Kobe just lives in it, we may end up with a competitive series.

Going all out to induce a Kobe meltdown is not the way a coach like Larry Brown wants his team to play. It’s desperate and so certain not to work that trying it means accepting that you have almost no chance to win otherwise. It’s hard to imagine Brown accepting that.

Brown gets paid to look at his team and imagine the possibilities—to imagine that an inside offensive force will magically spring forth from his roster and give the Lakers something to worry about besides the long-range bombing of Iverson and Aaron McKie. Will it be Dikembe Mutombo, 15 years into his career, choosing this moment to reveal the fluid moves that he’s kept secret from the world until now? Will it be Tyrone Hill taking it to the rim with authority more than once a game? The coach must believe this can happen. More than that, he must believe that Allen Iverson will overcome his team’s deficiencies one more time. You wouldn’t want to count on it, but at least it’s something to root for.