If Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal had hit upon this solution several months ago, they would have saved each other a great deal of aggravation. Unable to agree for most of the season on which of them should be the Lakers' lead executioner, the two stars finally decided to do the civilized thing and divide the duties evenly. There is, after all, no reason that the team should have to limit itself either to bludgeoning opponents with O'Neal's power or burning them with Bryant's speed when it can so comfortably alternate between the two.
It appears that they've settled on having O'Neal, their gargantuan center, dominate at home while Bryant, their acrobatic swingman, takes top billing on the road. Or maybe it's that Shaq does the heavy lifting Monday through Thursday while Kobe works long weekends. It's not clear how they've divided the workload, but in light of the way O'Neal and Bryant carved up the Sacramento Kings in the Lakers' four-game sweep of their Western Conference semifinals last week, it's obvious that it will take an exceedingly strong and swift team to keep Los Angeles from repeating as champion.
The San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 to advance to the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, are the only team in the playoffs that seems capable of measuring up. But now that O'Neal's and Bryant's talents are dovetailing so neatly—and with guard Derek Anderson, the Spur best equipped to defend against Bryant, sidelined with a separated shoulder for at least the early part of the series—even San Antonio will have a hard time coping with the diversity of the Lakers' attack. With its 119-113 clincher over the Kings in Game 4, Los Angeles had won 15 straight games, the last seven in the playoffs.
When asked after Game 4 who would win an L.A.- San Antonio conference finals, Kings coach Rick Adelman said, "I just got finished getting hammered by them, so I'd say the Lakers. They have two great players playing at the top of their games, and if you get the slightest bit preoccupied with stopping one, the other will make you pay dearly for it."
If O'Neal wasn't dazing the Kings, Bryant was confusing them. The first two games were Shaq showcases. He battered Sacramento big men Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard en route to 44 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1, followed by 43 and 20 in Game 2, making him the first player in league history to reach the 40-point, 20-rebound mark in back-to-back playoff games. His defensive presence was also part of the reason that Kings power forward Chris Webber was largely ineffective inside. Instead he fired mostly inaccurate jump shots throughout the four games.
When the series moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento for Game 3, the Kings ganged up on O'Neal, which left them vulnerable to Bryant's slicing, spinning forays to the basket and to some breathtaking one-on-one moves that freed him for jump shots. Bryant finished with 36 points in the Lakers' 103-81 victory. Then he outdid himself in Game 4. Although O'Neal fouled out in the fourth quarter with "only" 25 points and 10 rebounds, Bryant carried Los Angeles home with a 48-point, 16-rebound performance. By the time they were done with Sacramento, Bryant and O'Neal had become the third pair of teammates to average more than 30 points apiece in a series (box, page 49). "People are always saying we can't coexist, but Shaq and I know what we're capable of accomplishing together," Bryant said after Game 4. "There's no way we're going to lose sight of that."
The Lakers are playing more efficiently than they have all season, perhaps even better than they did during their championship run last year. The only thing they're having a hard time doing is keeping a lid on their confidence. O'Neal declared before Game 3 that he considered Hall of Famer Bill Russell, the greatest defensive player in NBA history, "too light" to have had much luck guarding him. Since Russell played at about 220 pounds, about 120 pounds below O'Neal's weight, no one argued with him, least of all Divac and Pollard, who didn't put up much resistance either.
O'Neal used his bulk to dislodge Sacramento defenders and establish position wherever he wanted to, which was usually so close to the rim he could simply turn and drop the ball in the basket. Although Divac complained mildly to both the refs and the media—and with some justification—that O'Neal should have been called for fouls on some of his battering-ram moves and that he was getting away with three-second violations, the bigger problem for the Kings was that their double teams on O'Neal were half-hearted. "You can't just double-team Shaq; you have to double-team him aggressively," says TNT analyst Danny Ainge, who played and coached against O'Neal. "That takes courage, because you're probably going to absorb some blows, and let's face it, nobody really wants to do that."
If O'Neal gets away with the occasional well-placed elbow as he spins to the basket or with using his derriere to clear a path as he backs his way toward the hoop, it's largely because he's so powerful that he effortlessly sends opponents flying. "He can put a little hip into you or dip his shoulder into you a bit, and it doesn't look like much to the refs," says Divac. "But he's so much stronger than anyone else in the league that it's enough to knock you off balance. If they don't call some of those things, nobody has any chance against Shaq."
However, O'Neal's uncommon strength sometimes works against him. He takes significant blows that aren't called fouls because they don't even make him flinch. In Game 4 Divac tried to slap the ball out of O'Neal's hands and ended up giving him the equivalent of a karate chop across the forearms. Most players would have lost the ball, but because it didn't faze O'Neal, no foul was called. "The guy gets fouled more than anybody in the league," says Pollard, who averaged four fouls a game in just 17 minutes of action.