Star power is one reason the Lakers are big favorites in the upcoming NBA Finals, where most expect the scrappy, defense-oriented Detroit Pistons to become the sixth straight Eastern Conference champion dismissed by the West's behemoths.
So the Pistons' mission is clear: They've got a rare chance to prove the basketball world wrong. But what will the Lakers use for inspiration while playing for their fourth championship in five years?
Leave that to O'Neal, whose outlandish personal motivational ploys often are as funny as they are effective. He has decided the Lakers are perceived as villains -- and that everyone is hoping
their mini-dynasty will be ended by Detroit.
"Of course they are," O'Neal said. "Everyone wants to see us falter. I just think that sometimes they think that we're the Yankees of baseball. ... We know what it's going to take. We're not going to walk on this team by any means. We have to do what we're supposed to do. I'm always supposed to win."
For all their fame, wealth and international attention, there's a simple reason Shaq and Kobe always expect to win: Though every team plans to play its best basketball in the spring, the Lakers do.
They were a mess of conflicting skills and rampaging egos for most of their tumultuous season, but they've won 14 of their last 19 games to reach the Finals. That momentum, even more than their
eclectically talented roster, makes them the favorite over Detroit in Game 1 on Sunday.
"So far in the playoffs, they've been able to do what they want, whenever they want it, whenever they need it," Detroit center Elden Campbell said.
Late-season surges are a hallmark of coach Phil Jackson's teams,
but the Lakers' veterans took it to an extreme this season. O'Neal
and Bryant both recently admitted to being bored during long
stretches of the regular season, while new arrivals Karl Malone and
Gary Payton still aren't really comfortable in Jackson's system.
"We're getting close to playing our best basketball," Malone said. "We're not there yet, but we've been creeping up on it for a while now. Except for a couple of games in the second round
(against San Antonio), we've been improving and finding our focus better."
When the Lakers can smell a title, they perk up -- and that's exactly what happened after two key games this spring.
First, there was a late-season loss to Sacramento in which Bryant repeatedly passed up open chances to shoot. The baffling defeat actually spurred the Lakers to win their final two games of
the regular season, capturing the division title when the Kings
lost both of their games.
Most recently, the Lakers made a wealth of adjustments on both
ends of the court after losing Game 2 of their second-round series
at San Antonio. Los Angeles finished off the series with four
straight victories -- with a gigantic help from Derek Fisher's improbable buzzer-beater in Game 5 -- and followed with a six-game
victory over Minnesota in the conference finals.
"No way did we think we were going to beat (the Spurs) four
times in a row," Fisher said. "The success we've had in this
postseason is by playing one game at a time. There hasn't been an
air of desperation, a 9-1-1, 'We have to win this game.' "
No Eastern team without Michael Jordan on its roster has won the finals since Detroit captured its second title in 1990. Though the Lakers are clear favorites for their momentum and talent, the Pistons' defense and Richard Hamilton's scoring should give them a better chance than other recent East finalists.
Jackson doesn't expect Detroit to be better on defense than San Antonio, but that was the strongest opinion voiced during Los Angeles' workout in El Segundo on Friday. The Lakers split their
regular-season series with Detroit, but they typically play well against teams that don't have the offensive skill to keep up in a high-scoring game.
Earlier in the week, coach Larry Brown told his team that the only way to earn the Lakers' respect is to win a title -- and though the Lakers appear to be peaking, a couple of losses could cause
their fragile chemistry to explode, just as it did several times during their crazy season.
"Yeah, we got our little scheme," Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace said. "But I ain't going to sit up here and give it out. But we got our little scheme. ... If I didn't have faith in it, I wouldn't be here."