Originally created 06/03/04

Lakers-Pistons matchup might not be easy on the eyes



EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Shaquille O'Neal bills the NBA Finals as the Fantastic Four against the Wallace Guys and believes they'll be one of the most watched ever.

The Lakers' big man must not have watched the Eastern Conference finals, where every basket was cause for celebration.

Maybe Hollywood Glitz vs. Motown Sludge is a better description.

"We hope we have some remedies so the games are a little more enjoyable to watch for the fans," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Wednesday.

Jackson apparently did watch the Eastern Conference finals - at least Tuesday night's finale when the Pistons beat the Pacers 69-65 in the second-lowest-scoring playoff game since the 24-second shot clock was introduced in 1954.

"We're not as smothering a team as either one of those are," Jackson said.

"Ben said it best - he doesn't care if it's 28-29 after four quarters as long as he's up by one," Lakers forward Karl Malone said, referring to Detroit's Ben Wallace.

The way the defensive-minded Pistons play, that just might happen.

"Anybody who makes it to the Finals deserves to be there," Malone said. "I don't care if we score in the 50s if we end up with four wins."

The Lakers and Pistons meet starting Sunday at Staples Center in a rematch of the 1988 and 1989 NBA Finals, with Los Angeles heavily favored in its quest for a fourth championship in five years.

The Pistons have reached the Finals for the first time since 1990.

"We don't want to be content just with being in the Finals," Wallace said.

A title would be Jackson's 10th as a head coach, snapping a tie with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most championships won by a coach or manager in a major professional team sport.

"It's a great fortune to be going for something like this - it's a matter of circumstance and luck," said the 58-year-old Jackson, whose contract expires at season's end, leaving his future up in the air.

With eight players including Malone, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton eligible for free agency after the season, this could mark the end of an era for the Lakers.

"I haven't dwelt on that," Jackson said. "We're just playing for the moment."

No Eastern Conference team has won a championship since 1998 - Jackson's last year as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan's final season with that team.

The Spurs won in 1999 and 2003, and the Lakers, under Jackson, prevailed from 2000-2002, going 12-3 in the Finals against the Pacers, 76ers and Nets. O'Neal was the Finals MVP each time, but those were the days when he was completely dominating the middle.

Now, it's a different matter with Malone, Bryant, Payton and several role players sharing the load.

"It's cool if we're winning," O'Neal said. "If we're not winning, everybody has a problem, including me."

The Pistons seem ill-equipped to deal with O'Neal - at least with those who usually play. Neither Ben nor Rasheed Wallace matches up as well, perhaps, as seldom-used Elden Campbell, who played with the Lakers for 8 1/2 seasons before being traded in March 1999.

"There'll probably be a lot of Elden," O'Neal said. "If we do what we're supposed to do, I don't see any defense giving us trouble."

Jackson said he expects Rasheed Wallace, whose listed weight of 230 pounds is more than 100 less than O'Neal, to get the dreaded assignment.

O'Neal will be able to roam free on the defensive end since Ben Wallace is anything but a scorer and Malone will draw the assignment on Rasheed.

Jackson-coached teams not only have a history of being led by all-time greats, like Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls and O'Neal and Bryant with the Lakers, they're known for big efforts in big games by role players.

In Chicago, it was the likes of Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Bill Wennington, among others, who came through with big shots. With the Lakers, it's been Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, and, most recently, Derek Fisher and Kareem Rush.

"We're going to need 3-point shooting - we're going to need to spread their defense," Jackson said, probably repeating a statement he often made while coaching the Bulls.

Fisher and Rush fill that bill.

"When everybody talks about Kobe and Shaq being the reason I came here, I really looked at the whole team," said the 40-year-old Malone, who joined the Lakers last summer in search of his first championship.

The teams play twice at Staples Center before the best-of-seven series shifts to The Palace of Auburn Hills for Games 3, 4 and 5.

No team playing at home has ever won those three games, but the visiting team has done so, most recently the Lakers in Philadelphia three years ago to wrap up a 15-1 postseason.

The coach of the 76ers was current Pistons coach Larry Brown.

"We go back a long way," Jackson said. "I've got a great understanding for what he does, a lot of respect for his ability to coach basketball."

Jackson doesn't sound like a big fan of the 2-3-2 format.

But he did say: "The only thing that's different is spending a week in a place. I don't want to say anything about Detroit because I started that with different towns. But we all know about Detroit."