The bottom line is that O'Neal's life in the pivot is essentially a series of blows delivered and received. He either fouls or is fouled, often both, on nearly every possession, and the degree to which he dominates depends largely on how and when the referees choose to stop the carousel of contact. In Game 2 he received a pass in the low post, spun and leaned into Divac as he banked in the shot, and a foul was called against the Sacramento center. In Game 4 O'Neal made the identical move but was called for a foul. "I play my same game every time," he says. "It's not always called the same way, but I play it the same way."
Bryant seemed to be playing Game 4 with an extra spring in his step, and as it turned out, he and the Lakers needed it. O'Neal was hamstrung by foul trouble most of the game and took only two shots in the fourth quarter. Bryant, who played all 48 minutes, more than compensated with 15 points in the final period, but some of his best work was done earlier, when he devastated the Kings with nine offensive rebounds in the first three quarters. "He's such a quick jumper, he's like a pogo stick," said Sacramento's Doug Christie, who was assigned to guard Bryant most of the game. "He just found ways to beat us today, and that's the mark of a great player."
Bryant went to the foul line 19 times in both Game 3 and Game 4, a measure of how helpless the Kings were to stop him. He has such a quick first step that a defender's first priority has to be to back off and deny him the drive, but that doesn't begin to solve the problems he creates. Bryant is one of the few young players in the league with a polished midrange game, so when his slashes to the basket are cut off, he can stop and drop in whisper-soft jumpers. He has curbed his urge to turn every possession into a ball-handling exhibition, but he's still more than ready to go one-on-one when the situation calls for it, as it did with 3:09 remaining in Game 4, when O'Neal left with his sixth foul and the Lakers were clinging to a 106-103 lead.
"You could see in his eyes that he was ready for that moment," said Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. "He knew that it was his time." On successive crucial possessions, Bryant first drew a foul from Christie on a drive and made one free throw for a 109-107 lead, then pulled up for a short jumper that made it 111-107 with 1:21 to go, terminally deflating the Kings.
O'Neal's early dominance softened the Kings for Bryant, but against San Antonio that process may be reversed. Without Anderson, the Spurs' backcourt (page 50) may have difficulty cutting off Bryant's penetration, and their two 7-footers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, may spend a great deal of their time trying to keep Bryant from getting to the basket. That, in turn, should give O'Neal more room to operate.
San Antonio poses problems for the Lakers as well. Most teams agree that one key to neutralizing O'Neal is to make him work on defense, and the Spurs' big men will certainly make him do that. Players of their stature may also get some of the foul calls that Divac and Pollard did not. Los Angeles isn't likely to survive against the Spurs with its stars taking turns the way they did against the Kings. L.A. will need to combine Bryant's midair assaults with O'Neal's punishing ground attack. To beat San Antonio, the Lakers' two stars will have to make sure they are both high and mighty.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]