Kobe vs. Rip matchup only the beginning

Updated: June 5, 2004, 7:44 PM ET
Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Kobe Bryant is ready to run, even without track shoes.

He'd better be.

The Los Angeles Lakers' star will be chasing boyhood pal Richard Hamilton around the court starting Sunday night in one of the key matchups of the NBA Finals.

Much like Reggie Miller did with the Indiana Pacers in his prime, Hamilton goes nonstop as he moves to get free for his accurate jumper, taking advantage of screens set by his Detroit teammates.

"Hamilton is a tireless worker and capable of being a one-man wrecking crew," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Saturday. "We'll have to watch Kobe's stamina."

Bryant, the Lakers' leading scorer, realizes guarding Hamilton will tire him out a bit.

"But I've faced challenges like that before," he said. "I've chased [Allen] Iverson, Tracy McGrady. I'm up for the task. I think I'll be able to will myself through being tired."

Bryant and Hamilton grew up in the Philadelphia area, graduating from high school in 1996 -- Bryant from Lower Merion, Hamilton from Coatesville.

"We played at the Palestra, the Palestra was sold out," Bryant recalled, adding his team won all three games it played against Hamilton's team.

"We were teammates for three summers, AAU, we roomed together," Bryant said. "We were really close. He is a great guy. Our team won almost every game."

It probably won't be the same at the other end, since the Pistons are expected to put Tayshaun Prince on Bryant, at least at the beginning.

"It's fun -- you love it because we've been going at it since the ninth or 10th grade," Hamilton said of playing against his old friend. "Getting the opportunity of playing against him, for the whole world to see, that's definitely fun. It just shows how far both of us have come as players."

Bryant was selected as an All-NBA first-team defender this season for the third time, but the Lakers' defense was sorely lacking most of the year.

That as much as anything else explained their need to rally from a 2-0 deficit to beat defending champion San Antonio 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals.

"That's what saved us, basically. Defense wins you championships," Lakers forward Rick Fox said. "It got the Pistons to the NBA Finals. It got us here because we decided to play some.

"It all boils down to, if you can't defend, you get beat. We almost did by San Antonio. We didn't defend enough [in the first two games] to win."

And then, things changed.

"I think after the first two games at San Antonio, we realized our defense wasn't holding strong -- we had to buckle down," Lakers guard Kareem Rush said. "We had to do something about that. Our defense has been carrying us. You can score all you want, it doesn't mean much if you don't stop anybody."

The Lakers have won eight of 10 games over San Antonio and Minnesota since losing to the Spurs 88-78 and 95-85 to begin the conference semifinals. They've allowed an average of 84 points in those eight wins against two extremely proficient offensive teams.

While those aren't Pistons numbers, they've been good enough.

"I don't think they get here if they don't guard people, especially when you consider what the players in the West bring," Pistons coach Larry Brown said of the Lakers. "At the end of the year, watching them play in the playoffs, I thought they won because of their defense."

One of the keys has been the improved effort of Shaquille O'Neal, who has made it nearly impossible for opponents to penetrate since San Antonio's Tony Parker invaded the middle at will during the first two games of the conference semifinals.

"I don't think I've ever seen Shaq rebound or play defense any better," Brown said.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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