- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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When these NBA Finals finally start, there will be much to sort out. Based on initial Stein Line estimates, there are at least six good plot lines that need immediate resolution.
That's one story line for as many games as this series is going to last, in other words, because here's what we already do know: The Lakers might float in and out of games, but they're going to win this series in six.
Maybe even five depending on how "fat and lazy" they are, in the words of Phil Jackson.
What we don't know yet is ...
1. Who will win Finals MVP. There is usually only one conceivable answer here when the Lakers are involved: Shaquille O'Neal. This, though, ain't your typical postseason. As the Finals commence, there really isn't a clear-cut favorite for what amounts to the playoffs' MVP trophy, which lends a spicy new twist to the interminable Shaq-and-Kobe saga. Those two have taken turns dominating throughout the first three rounds, and you can argue that Derek Fisher is a Finals MVP contender simply because of the finish he gave us in San Antonio in Game 5, Round 2. The race to win this one, for once, looks like it'll provide more suspense than the actual series. Judging by Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, we might even have to throw Kareem Rush onto the ballot. Yet Minnesota's Mark Madsen, even after grappling with Shaq for six games, thinks it'll be tough for voters to ignore Bryant's all-around contributions, and not simply on those days when he's flown in from Colorado. "Kobe is playing at the highest level I've ever seen him," Madsen said, "and I've seen him at a very high level. Because he's making things so much easier for his teammates." When Kobe's in the mood, that is.
2. How successful the Lakers will be guarding Rip Hamilton. Those six triples in Game 6 were huge, but Rush was assured a bigger role in the Finals because of L.A.'s opponent, not because Jackson considers Rush the Lakers' best perimeter shooter. Rush will be part of the task force that must share the responsibility of chasing Detroit's prime scoring threat all over the court. What really worries the Lakers about the Pistons, more than Detroit's defensive prowess, is Rip Hamilton's ability to run defenders through and around screens for 24 seconds of every possession. Reason being: L.A. doesn't have Stein Line favorite Ron Harper anymore, or anyone like him. It was Harp, remember, who was primarily responsible for tracking Reggie Miller in the 2000 Finals. Bryant only had to chase Reggie in spots, preserving his legs for offensive domination. And, as Indiana's Jamaal Tinsley said the other day, Hamilton is "a baby Reggie Miller." Kobe is the Laker best-equipped to deal with Rip in this series, but Jackson isn't going to want his offensive facilitator/crunch-time dominator wasting all his energy hunting Rip down. It appears the Lakers' only option, with their current crew, is to take a group approach, and Rush will be part of it. Devean George, Rick Fox, Fisher, Gary Payton, Rush ... and, again, Kobe in spots. Most likely they'll all have to take turns, unless someone in the group emerges as the new Harp.
3. Whether copious double-teaming of Shaq by two Wallaces at once can really bother The Diesel. This is No. 2 on the list of L.A. concerns. Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace has no shot at stopping Shaquille O'Neal one-on-one. As a tag team, by contrast, they can at least theoretically have some success limiting Shaq's wreckage, with Detroit also possessing more back-up bulk (Mehmet Okur and Elden Campbell) than any other team in the East. Another source of promise for the Pistons is the presence of Tayshaun Prince, who gives Detroit a top-shelf defender to shadow Kobe while the bigs deal with O'Neal. That still leaves the Pistons vulnerable to what might come from Karl Malone or Payton or stealth heroes like Fisher and Rush, but that's better than having no options against L.A.'s franchise twosome. Of course, as a caution to Motown's optimism, we're obligated to note that Bryant should be plenty warmed up for Prince after dealing with Bruce Bowen and Trenton Hassell in the past two rounds.
4. If Detroit's offense is really as punchless as it looked against Indy. Let's get real, here. We can talk all day about the potential problems Detroit can cause the Lakers with its D, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say L.A. is still going to score 85 to 90 points per game, no matter how stingy Detroit is. Who's expecting the same from the Pistons? Since that three-overtime epic with New Jersey in Game 5 of the second round, Detroit has reached the 90-point plateau only once in eight games. The Pistons have been held below 75 points in four of those eight games. They can't blame all that on Indiana dragging them down.
5. The true value of playoff mojo. From a karma perspective -- something you always measure when the Zenmeister is coaching -- the Lakers have a huge edge ... even though Kobe has no court-to-court Colorado trips scheduled in the championship round. Phil Jackson teams are a sparkling 9-0 in the Finals. L.A. also hasn't lost a home playoff game yet this spring, and has the home-court advantage for the first time since the first round. The Pistons, furthermore, will have to overcome the standard dose of East vs. West inferiority, although I've maintained since 'Sheed's arrival that Detroit is the only Leastern outfit with West size. Does any of the above really matter? Sadly for the Pistons ... yup. My advice to them: You better steal Game 1 if you harbor any realistic hope of taking this series past five games. Jackson is a mere 44-0 in playoff series when his team has any kind of lead in a series: 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2. That's Forty-four and Oh. So, yeah: If the Pistons lose Sunday's opener, they're basically toast.
6. What happens next with the Lakers. Sure. I'm just as curious as anyone to see how the Zenmeister reacts when he wins that 10th ring to pass Red Auerbach ... and how Mailman and GP are going to soak in winning their first rings ... and the look on Kobe's face when he finally makes it to the end of this unprecedented circus ride of a season by winning his fourth championship in five years. Those will all be big stories. However ... the really good stuff is what happens after these Finals. That's when we start finding out how many of these guys will be back with Shaq next season.
Who'll win Finals MVP? Can Rip be stopped? Will the Wallaces bother Shaq? We're dying to know.