Only Karl, Chris can save them now

Updated: May 7, 2004, 3:57 PM ET
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

Pride. It can be a blinding and dangerous thing.

Particularly for those California natives who grew up thinking that it is probably better to be in prison in the Golden State than to be the Governor anywhere else.

And now after losing so many of our jobs over the last four years to who knows where and so much of our money to the illegal manipulation of the energy markets, we are faced with the reality that the Big One is finally here as the giant tectonic plates grind up against each other -- determined to spit out a winner, regardless of what some appointed court or referee has to say about it.

Karl Malone and Tim Duncan
Getty ImagesKarl Malone, left, must use his brains and brawn to neutralize Tim Duncan.
San Antonio and Minnesota have established themselves as the favorites, and both have home-court advantage. But the Lakers and the Kings are the last hopes of the Chosen Ones.

And though spring is springing everywhere, these Western series comes down to the worn and tired legs of two aging power forwards in a final stand to keep hope alive.

The West will be won this year and California saved if, and only if, Karl Malone and Chris Webber can fight off the ravages of Father Time for two more weeks. It is their matchups with Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett -- the NBA's two best players -- that will determine the fate of The Promised Land one more time.

Karl and Chris do not have to win these head-to-head confrontations outright. Their job is to nullify complete dominance by Duncan and KG, and to hopefully win some of the big plays -- something that Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki were unable to do in the warmup round. And Malone and Webber have to do it against bigger, younger, faster, stronger and better players. This is the ultimate test of whether you've really got a game or are merely a stepping stone.

It will start with defense -- as it always does -- for Malone and Webber. They will have to force Duncan and KG off the blocks and towards a less effective perimeter game. Neither Malone nor Webber can now match the youthful exuberance and evolutionary development of talent that Duncan and Garnett bring. It will really have to be a game of skill, timing and positioning.

Footwork, slashing arms and hands as weapons to strip the ball down low and mental acuity are the tools of last resort for Karl and Chris -- all while defending without fouling. It's not as if they are going to outlast, out-jump, out-run or out-quick the much younger, taller and fresher Duncan and Garnett. If Tim and KG are able to get to the hoop with impunity and have Malone and Webber back on their heels and in foul trouble, then the Lakers and Kings will not be able to exploit the time-proven advantages that they already have in the middle.

In this league, men are made in the paint. Shaq will huff, puff and bull his way to supremacy in his matchup with Rasho Nesterovic, Malik Rose and Kevin Willis. And even as poorly as Vlade Divac and Brad Miller are playing, the Kings will still have their way with Ervin Johnson and Michael Olowokandi. But all this changes if Duncan and Garnett are rolling to the point where the Lakers and Kings' giants are needed to come help contain them.

San Antonio is the smartest, deepest, most complete and best conditioned team in the NBA (all traits once the sole property of the Lakers). The Spurs are also the one squad that never has problems figuring out who they are and why they are the current world champions.

But they now find themselves having to attack their oldest living nemesis -- Karl Malone, who for years in Utah was the Spurs' Waterloo. Duncan is now a more polished and refined player than Malone is. Timmy calmly and efficiently destroys his opponents mentally -- wrapping them up in Gary Kasparov-type traps that they have no idea they are even in and have even less of a chance of escaping. Karl has waited too long for this, though, which makes his teammates' selfishness, nonchalance and seeming indifference all the more exasperating. Karl also is well aware that he only has to guard an extremely limited area of the court, and with that firmly under control, Shaq will take care of the rest.

Webber has it even easier. Though not as good as Malone, he only has to play against Garnett who has yet to master domination the way Duncan has. Which KG will it be this time? Today's MVP, or the guy who defers to his gunning guards as he slinks off to the perimeter claiming he's giving his teammates room, allowing them to do their thing and saying that we win and lose as a team. Will we witness history as Garnett finally lives up to his potential as one of the truly great talents ever while he looks at Webber with the disdain of someone who doesn't even belong on the same court with him? Or will it be the apologetic KG who once again has to try to explain why he couldn't get it done against an inferior opponent?

On the offensive end, Los Angeles and Sacramento will have to rely on the subtle contributions from Malone and Webber to survive. It will not be about overpowering young kids in Houston and Dallas -- taking what was once their seeming birthright. Now it's about the complementary skills of passing, screening, running the floor, getting to the offensive glass, knocking down open jumpers that others have created, boxing out and generating possessions.

Sacramento struggled mightily down the stretch of the regular season, but then had the good fortune of drawing Dallas. But what sort of measuring stick are the Mavericks anyway? Injuries, age and the pratfalls of coming so close for so long without ever getting it done have all taken their toll on the Kings.

The West will be won on the broad shoulders of the one man who can ascend above the crowded pushing, shoving and jostling for position down low. Who will be able to dictate the future? Who will be able to create and generate open shots for his team that really anybody can make? Who can defend? Who can rebound? Who can lead and inspire? Who can play?

Tim Duncan can, we know that. Shaq could, one day long ago. The rest is up for grabs as we wait for the opening tip. I'll see you on the burning shore.

Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.

ALSO SEE