Spend a postseason in Los Angeles, where half of Hollywood sits courtside at the Staples Center for Lakers games, and before you know it, what you'll really want to do is direct. Fade in: A wide shot just before the tip-off of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Indiana Pacers. The camera pans slowly across the court, introducing the central characters. Shaquille O'Neal and Reggie Miller, both self-proclaimed men of steel, peel off Superman T-shirts. Kobe Bryant dribbles absentmindedly, but then, he doesn't have to do much; he has so much charisma that the camera can't help but zoom in on him. Pacers forward Jalen Rose, eager and confident, struts into the frame, ready to steal the scene.
There is so much star power at the center of the shot that it's easy to miss what's happening on the periphery, which is where two more of the Finals' important characters, Lakers small forward Glen Rice and Pacers power forward Dale Davis, tend to operate. Their roles—the marksman and the muscle, respectively—could not be more different, nor in some ways, more alike. They are both stone-faced specialists who, when they do their jobs well, complement perfectly their team's main attractions. Without a strong performance from the 6'11" Davis, Indiana's only accomplished rebounder and best interior defender, the perimeter production of Miller and Rose wouldn't have been enough to get the Pacers out of the first round of the playoffs, much less propel them past the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. When the 6'8" Rice, one of the league's best long-range shooters, is misfiring (or, as is often the case, not pulling the trigger at all), the Lakers tend to lean so heavily on O'Neal and Bryant that they sometimes topple over, as they nearly did in their heart-stopping, back-from-the-dead 89-84 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday.
Scoring 11 points, Rice was only intermittently effective in that game, just as he has been ever since he came to L.A. in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, for swing-man Eddie Jones and power forward Elden Campbell, in March 1999. That the Lakers nonetheless erased a 15-point, fourth-quarter Blazers lead with one of the more stirring comebacks in recent memory is instructive: When Rice, 33, shoots like the All-Star he once was, Los Angeles is close to invincible; through Sunday, in playoff games when he scored 18 or more, L.A.'s average margin of victory was 15.3 points. On nights when Rice is off target or missing in action, the Lakers, though they may still prevail, often throw a bigger scare into their fans than Jack Nicholson did in The Shining.
The Pacers can't afford to have Davis, 31, similarly vanish against the Lakers. If he duplicates or surpasses his performance in the conference finals, when he grabbed 16 rebounds in four of the six games and averaged 13.5 overall, Indiana could make it a tight series. Anything less, and the Lakers will turn the Finals into a formality.
It was symbolic that after Miller finished off the Knicks last Friday with a 17-point fourth quarter in Game 6, he was triumphantly carried off the Madison Square Garden court on Davis's broad back. "If you look at some of those threes Reggie made, or the big baskets from other guys in this series and throughout the season, you'll see that a lot of them came off second or third opportunities from a Dale Davis rebound," Indiana point guard Mark Jackson says. "A lot of what we do would be impossible if we didn't have Dale going to work on the inside."
Davis didn't go to work against New York, he went to war. "Before the series a friend gave me a couple of camouflage shirts with a hat to match and a SWAT team cap," he says. To put himself in the proper frame of mind, Davis wore one of the hats to each practice and wore the shirt underneath his warmups before each game. "It's not a real war, but you have to approach it like it is," he says. Heading into Game 1 of the Finals, on Wednesday in L.A., the 230-pound Davis should have upgraded his battle gear to a flak jacket and helmet because he will be called upon to guard the 7'1", 325-pound O'Neal whenever Indiana center Rik Smits needs a rest or gets into foul trouble, which he often does shortly after the national anthem.
Indiana may have been encouraged by seeing how well Portland contained O'Neal with double and triple teams throughout the series, especially in Game 7, when he was limited to nine shots and 18 points. But the Pacers can study tape of that game until they're bleary-eyed and still have trouble matching the Blazers' success. Portland bottled up the Lakers by sending tall, long-armed defenders such as Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace to help O'Neal's primary defender, either Arvydas Sabonis or Brian Grant. Indiana has no such multitude of athletic big men to support Smits and Davis, and the ones they do have, Sam Perkins and Austin Croshere, aren't quick enough to swarm Shaq in the post then race out to contest jumpers from the perimeter, as the Blazers' did. " Portland can do things defensively against us that no other team can hope to duplicate," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Indiana will try to use Smits's outside shooting touch to lure O'Neal away from the basket, just as Portland did with Sabonis. But O'Neal wasn't overly taxed by Sabonis and isn't likely to be exhausted by guarding Smits, either, who was mostly ineffective against the Knicks. The Pacers will also find that some of their favorite methods of attack against New York won't be available to them against L.A. Mark Jackson won't steamroller Ron Harper and backup Brian Shaw, both 6'6", on his way to the basket for short jump hooks the way he did 6'2" Charlie Ward and 6'1" Chris Childs. Miller will have a more difficult time losing Bryant, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, than he did Allan Houston. One matchup Indiana will likely try to take advantage of is the versatile Rose against Rice, who plays mediocre defense. If Rose can beat Rice off the dribble or shoot over him in the low post, it will force the Lakers to adjust. Otherwise, there may not be a single Pacer the Lakers will feel the need to double-team.
The Pacers, on the other hand, will have to double O'Neal constantly, which is where Rice comes in—or where the Lakers would like to see him step up. Since arriving in Los Angeles with a career average of 17.4 points, he has been bafflingly inconsistent. Part of the reason is that he is the third option in the offense instead of the primary one, as he was in Charlotte and with the Miami Heat, his first NBA team. Rice averaged 12.3 field goal attempts this season, as opposed to 16.9 in his last full season in Charlotte. But that doesn't explain why he isn't burying more of the shots that he is getting. In his two seasons with the Lakers he has the two lowest shooting percentages of his career—43.2 in 1998-99 and 43.0 this season—and he entered the Finals hitting just 41.0% on 10.1 attempts per game in the postseason. Rice is the kind of shooter whose accuracy declines when he doesn't get a steady diet of shots, and his opportunities now arise at such irregular intervals that he appears to be almost surprised when he has an open jumper.
Also, Rice has had more difficulty adapting to the triangle offense of Phil Jackson and assistant Tex Winter than any other Laker. Instead of having the ball in his hands and screens set for him, Rice has had to cut and move to open spots. "The problem has been his inability to play without the basketball," says Winter. "He hasn't done a lot of that in his career."