The Finals analysis: Lakers in six
Updated: June 6, 2004, 3:12 PM ETBy David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com
Chauncey Billups vs. Gary Payton. Let's say this up front: Billups has to win this matchup decisively if the Pistons are going to have any chance at the upset. He can't shoot 2-of-9 or 4-for-15 from the floor. Now, Billups is as streaky a shooter as there is in the league. When he's on, he can get 30 in a hurry. He'll need a couple of those against L.A -- Detroit's best chance to compromise Shaq at the defensive end is if Billups is successful running screen-and-roll, getting into the paint, and creating shots for others. Plus, Billups can't turn the ball over, and he needs to come up with a couple of steals a game. That's a lot to ask against Payton, even a diminished Payton. Phil Jackson is trying to keep GP happy with some screen-and-roll looks and direct posts early in the game. It won't be as easy for Payton posting the 6-foot-3 Billups as it was with Sam Cassell, but with Detroit's entire team having to help on Shaq, Payton should get more than his fair share of open perimeter looks.
Richard Hamilton vs. Kobe Bryant. It's a great matchup on paper, but I suspect the Pistons will use Tayshaun Prince on Bryant at the defensive end as much, if not more, than Hamilton. They can't afford for Hamilton to get in foul trouble guarding Bryant, which he surely will if he's on Kobe more than 30 minutes a game. Hamilton's job is to run Bryant ragged whenever the Lakers have Kobe defend him (although you'll see Payton and Devean George take their turns on Rip as well) by using multiple screens and picks, getting out on the break early and often and hoping Kobe tires at the other end. Rip has become a true scorer; he may have a bad quarter, or a bad half, but at the end of the night he's going to have his 20 points one way or the other. The problem for Detroit is that you can say the same for Kobe -- only it's 25 to 30. Detroit can only hope that Bryant doesn't abuse the willing-but-still-skinny Rip on the box, or that Bryant gets caught up in trying to beat Prince and his 7-2 wingspan enough times that he forces shots and disrupts the flow of the triangle.
Tayshaun Prince vs. Devean George. Both are enigmatic offensive players, prone to being AWOL for entire games. Prince is capable of getting to the rim but seems to have trouble finishing, and his jumper looks broken too often. But he can't be shy about letting it fly if he's open. Defensively, George is better than he's given credit for at closing penetration in the paint and creating deflections, and he will be a help guy on any Piston that gets going. Prince's length makes him a factor on just about every defensive possession (just ask Reggie Miller) and could be asked to provide some double-down help on Shaq, forcing George to hit a few threes. But it says here Prince's primary job will be prevent Bryant from one of his insane quarters, one of those 18-point masters where Kobe hits a few runners, a couple of threes and demoralizes the opposition with a few gravity-challenging hangers in the paint or a dump-off to Shaq for some crammage. Frankly, Detroit can survive if Prince fouls out; Hamilton is another deal.
Rasheed Wallace vs. Karl Malone.
Ben Wallace vs. Shaquille O'Neal. I'm looking forward to this one. Not because I think Big Ben can stop Shaq -- he can't, nobody can -- but because Wallace is the heart of the Pistons and he's not afraid of anybody. Will Larry Brown start him on Shaq, or will Brown use Rasheed on O'Neal first? Ben is the league's best weakside defender, but he can't play that role if he has to use all of his considerable muscle trying to keep O'Neal from walking him down to the low block. Surely, Brown will use everybody from Elden Campbell to Mehmet Okur against Shaq, but Ben will have to take him, too -- without somehow getting in prohibitive foul trouble. Shaq's biggest problem in the playoffs continues to be that his teammates can sometimes forget about him for quarters at a time. It's inexplicable; guys, he's 7-1, 340. He's not hard to find. For Detroit, it's OK if Wallace shoots jumpers in rhythm that were created by guard penetration; he has to get up a few shots to keep Shaq from totally resting on D, as he did against the Wolves. But it's not OK if Wallace has the ball in his hands as the shot clock is running down, which happened frequently in the Indiana series. This is the NBA equivalent of a great light-heavy or cruiserweight stepping up in class. I don't think the little guys have won many of those.
Elden Campbell, Lindsey Hunter, Mike James, Mehmet Okur and Corliss Williamson vs. Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Slava Medvedenko and Kareem Rush. Any offense Detroit gets from Campbell or Okur is gravy. They have 12 fouls among them to use on Shaq, and they better not come back to the bench with more than one left. Neither will likely front Shaq, because the Lakers will ultimately find ways to lob over them, as they did after Game 1 of the Spurs series. Okur is quite good on the perimeter, but it's hard to see the Lakers being very concerned if he hits a few jumpers. Hunter and James are quite adept at the halfcourt trap, which Detroit likes to use with its second unit. Williamson is the only Pistons reserve really capable of scoring consistently off the bench, but he shot the ball terribly against the Pacers. Rush's coming-out party in Game 6 against Minnesota was right on time, but he'll have to hit those same shots against Detroit. Fisher is banged up but does anyone look more like anything they throw up will go into the hoop right now than D Fish? Medvedenko was just as important in the closeout game against the Wolves as Rush, and his proclivity for big baskets in the fourth quarter is now more than coincidence or fad. The Pistons are going to have to keep a body on him. As for Darko Milicic ... well, he's active, and he's grown to 7-1¼, 265 pounds. Like that matters against the Diesel. If Darko plays real minutes in more than one game, Detroit is toast.
Larry Brown vs. Phil Jackson. I believe this has been Jackson's best coaching job ever. Forget all the Kobe stuff before the season and the injuries and infighting in the regular season, which were formidable obstacles in and of themselves. How Jackson got this team mentally off the mat from an 0-2 deficit against the defending champion Spurs is why he's probably worth the eight figures per he's been asking for in a new contract. The players did a lot of the self-correcting, too, but Jackson always hits the right note at the most critical time. Brown did what Joe Dumars hired him to do -- push the Pistons to the next level. Brown has found an offense that maximizes Hamilton, and he incorporated Rasheed into the system without a hitch. His players believe that he'll come up with something that will challenge L.A.'s prohibitive advantages inside. You wonder if Brown will get over his loathing of the zone to throw something different at Shaq. No one is better at in-game adjustments than LB, but no one is better at halftime adjustments than PJ.
Most figure this to be a cakewalk for the Lakers. I don't think so. The Pistons will be better offensively in these Finals than in the last two rounds, but L.A.'s defense isn't as good as Indiana's, or Jersey's. And Detroit can guard anybody. But the Pistons have two major problems. One, O'Neal and Bryant are so good, so aggressive, that they stretch every defense to the breaking point. It's hard to see the Wallaces staying out of foul trouble, and when they're not on the floor, the Pistons are in trouble. Two, it's hard to see Detroit getting into the 90s at the other end, and that's where these games will likely be won. The Lakers can use either O'Neal or Malone on Rasheed Wallace if he gets hot. If 'Sheed could get 20 to 25 a game, you'd give Detroit a puncher's chance, but I don't see that happening. The Pistons' only chance is to make this a track meet, to get 40-year-old Malone and 38-year-old Payton gassed by getting up and down the floor. And if the Pistons could steal a game in L.A. it would be interesting to see how they'd feed off of what has become a loud home court in Auburn Hills, Mich. But they'll have to create turnovers or dominate the glass to control the tempo, and that's not likely. It's not that the Pistons can't beat the Lakers at all; it's that they have to beat them four times. With a championship on the horizon, they're going to get the best from the Lakers' Big Four. And when those four have been right, no one has challenged L.A. all season. Detroit will fight and scrap, but it won't be enough.
Lakers in six.
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. David will take your questions in his weekly chat on Thursday. Send him a question here! Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.