Shaq, Kobe too tough to beat
Some people call him "The Daddy." Others refer to him as "The Diesel." Maybe a simple "Shaq" works for you. His Laker teammates can call him whatever they want, but they better call him often because things should always start and end with the "Big Fella."
Offensively, he is impossible for any one man to cover by himself. Opponents' game plans revolve around trying to figure out how to handle him on the blocks. The benefits of his devastation are numerous. First, he is obviously capable of putting up huge scoring numbers by himself if teams elect to play him in single coverage. Only the foolish (or crazy) will try that approach. Instead, Shaq will face double teams every time he touches the ball. The attention he commands and the number of defenders he occupies allow the rest of his supporting cast to have the room to operate at the offensive end of the court. Kobe Bryant has fewer defenders available to help on his dribble penetration. Shaq's presence allows Karl Malone routinely to shoot the open 18-foot jump shot and grab rebounds on the offensive glass. Derek Fisher and Devean George are allowed to become factors as a result of the attention Shaq requires. And so on. And so on. You get the idea by now.
Defensively, Shaq's effort is a little more selective, but his size alone is an impediment to anyone daring enough to try to get to the rim. When he is active and light on his feet, the notion of attacking the Lakers in the paint is downright silly. Blocked shots are not the true reflection of O'Neal's dominance defensively. His true value lies in the doubt he places in the minds of opponents even attempting to finish drives to the basket or crash the offensive boards. He has help, no doubt. Kobe is the most complete offensive player in the NBA. Phil Jackson (nine championships) shows great leadership as he manages the Lakers' incessant drama. And, the Lakers' role players (Gary Payton and Malone, among others) are the greatest in NBA history. The bottom line is that the Lakers would just be another good team without Shaquille O'Neal. Instead, they are on the verge of becoming a true dynasty. Maybe Shaq's real alias should be "The Jeweler" because he puts rings on everyone's fingers.
I'm sorry, Tim Duncan. No offense, Kevin Garnett. Keep working on those free throws, Shaq. Maybe next year, AI. I'm not trying to disrespect any of the other great players in the league, but if I had to choose one player in the NBA to make clutch plays when they are needed most, I would choose Kobe Bryant.
The characteristic that separates Kobe Bryant from the rest of the pack is his versatility. He has no weaknesses. He can create off the dribble. He can string together 3-point shots. He can find teammates when defenders come at him. He is an above-average rebounder. He impacts the game defensively. He is a very good free-throw shooter in pressure situations. Did I miss anything? Oh yeah. He seems to be at his best when he is in the midst of the most extreme chaos. Pretty complete package, don't you think?
Coming through in the clutch means so much more than simply making shots late in the game when the outcome is in the balance. It is about wanting and demanding the ball in order to make decisions for your team. It is about controlling the game and providing options when the offense breaks down and time on the shot clock is dwindling. Kobe Bryant does all of that and a whole lot more for the Lakers. He not only embraces pressure, but he seems to thrive on it. If O'Neal is the most dominant player in the NBA Finals, then Bryant is surely the most dynamic and electrifying.
Most importantly, Bryant has an innate sense of when to seize control of the game. He understands what going for the kill is all about and he relishes the opportunity to make that moment his and his alone. Teams try to prevent that by running extra defenders at him before he can get into that game-altering rhythm. Unfortunately for the opposition, that is exactly when Bryant turns the Lakers' role players into impact players as they spot up and take aim from the 3-point line.
The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers were assembled with one simple mission statement in mind: win an NBA championship. Nothing less is acceptable for this team. When two guys who are bound for the Hall of Fame (Payton and Malone) and take enormous pay cuts, dramatically reduce their roles and deal with more drama than the cast of "Law and Order," second place is considered a disaster.
The starting lineup of the Lakers features more players with go-to experience than any team in the NBA. There is always another option if someone is having an off night. They don't panic if they have a slow start because they have a confidence that they only need two or three guys to get it going on a given night. Eventually, Shaq will have his run and then Kobe will take over for an extended period of time.
Even more significant than the confidence of their stars is the performance of the role players. Fisher, George, Slava Medvedenko and Kareem Rush provide exactly the type of support the Lakers need. They accept the fact that the shots might be few and far between, yet they are always prepared to make teams pay for leaving them open. The most important of the bunch is Fisher. One of the most underrated players in the league, Fisher has been a vital part of the Lakers' latest run to a title. In fact, if L.A. celebrates another championship parade this time around, Fisher's buzzer-beating turnaround jump shot against San Antonio will be the defining moment that Lakers fans will cherish for years to come.
Tim Legler, an NBA analyst for ESPN and former NBA 3-point champion, is a weekly contributor to ESPN.com during the NBA playoffs.