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Like a prom queen in a new pair of heels, the Los Angeles Lakers stride imperiously into their fourth NBA Finals in five years, trying to hide the fact that they feel a little bit wobbly. They shouldn't lose and they probably won't lose, but they most assuredly could lose—to either of the possible Eastern Conference champs, the Indiana Pacers or the Detroit Pistons. You know how some teams can't ever be counted out? The Lakers can't ever be counted in. � It took L.A. six games to dispatch the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western final, the end finally coming on Monday night at Staples Center with a 96-90 purple-and-gold victory. The T-Wolves played most of the series without their two top point guards—Sam Cassell (back spasms) averaged only 12.8 minutes in five games, while Troy Hudson (ankle surgery) didn't suit up at all—and with a rotation at center ( Ervin Johnson, Michael Olowokandi, Mark Madsen and Oliver Miller) that was overmatched by Shaquille O'Neal, "the monster down low," as Minnesota guard Trenton Hassell called him. Yet the Lakers nearly let the series go the distance. "As long as they have Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq," said T-Wolves coach Flip Saunders, "they're the favorites. It might seem like they're vulnerable, but you have to play extremely well to beat them."
Of course you do. But the thought that a team with four future Hall of Earners could lose to the East in a Finals scheduled to begin on Sunday is no longer ludicrous. Doubts have been raised about power forward Karl Malone and point guard Gary Payton, the free agents who arrived last summer with their ring fingers premeasured but who have performed erratically in the postseason; about starting small forward Devean George, who stumbled through three games in his hometown of Minneapolis (4 of 20 from the field, 1 for 11 from three-point range) as if lost in dense fog; and about a bench whose only reliable contributor is guard Derek Fisher. Throw into that mix one lingering problem: O'Neal's gripe that from time to time his fellow Lakers, Bryant in particular, don't look for him enough. "Ask my teammates, the guys who have the ball," he said last Saturday, when asked why he put up only 11 shots during a 98-96 Game 5 loss at the Target Center.
Still, it will take a superb effort by either Detroit or Indiana to beat back the Big Bellyacher and his playmates. What's the surest way to pull off the upset? SI ran that question by coaches, players and scouts (all of whom requested anonymity). While one Western scout offered a facile solution—"The best way to beat them is to run over Shaq and Kobe with a pickup truck before they get to the arena"—a more reasonable battle plan emerged.
?The Lakers are at their most formidable when they run a controlled, half-court offense, so use full-court pressure as much as possible, even if it's only token man-to-man or a loose zone. This can disrupt Bryant's rhythm in particular and increase the chances that he'll heave up a clock-beating shot. "You have to turn Kobe into a volume shooter," says one coach. "You want him to take as many shots as he has points." In the Lakers' four wins over Minnesota, Bryant averaged 24.0 points on 18.3 shots; in the two losses, 25.0 on 21.5.
Also, full-court pressure wears on Bryant, who bears much of the ball-handling responsibility, as well as on the 35-year-old Payton. That, in turn, can force Lakers coach Phil Jackson to go to his bench more often than he'd like. "Once you get past Fish," said one player, "they don't have anybody who scares you." (That was before guard Kareem Rush unexpectedly hit 6 of 7 threes to bail out LA. in Game 6.)
? Los Angeles is a "high" team when it begins its half-court sets—that is, Malone and George venture well above the foul line to get the initiating pass from a guard—but even from there the forwards can dump it in to O'Neal on the blocks. Make them receive the ball four or five feet farther from the basket, though, and Shaq will then have to move out to get the entry pass, negating the huge advantage he has when he receives the ball deep.
?In the Timberwolves series O'Neal got off to such slow starts in the two losses that he was outscored in the first half by Johnson (5-4 in Game 2) and Madsen (6-5 in Game 5). That was due, in part, to Minnesota's ability to mix up its double teams: Jump Shaq immediately on some possessions, wait until he puts the ball on the floor on others. And just as the Timber-wolves did with 7-foot Kevin Garnett, double with a long-armed defender; little guys bother him only to the extent that gnats bother a sunning hippo. Of the two Eastern teams the Pistons are better equipped to play shackle-a- Shaq: Starting center Ben Wallace is nothing if not a premier interior defender, and possible help will come from Rasheed Wallace, Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince and Elden Campbell, all of whom are sufficiently long-limbed.
Be aware, too, that Shaq has become predictable, usually going to his righthanded jump hook when he's on the right block, usually spinning toward the baseline for a power move when he's on the left. And the Eastern finalist should make sure its big men get out and run. Though neither team is known for its fast break, both the Pistons (with the Wallaces) and the Pacers (with Jermaine O'Neal and Jeff Foster) are capable of siphoning gas from the Diesel's tank.
?If you can't bait Kobe into forcing shots, get the ball out of his hands whenever possible. Bryant is not only L.A.'s best shooter but also its most creative distributor, a player who frequently drives and leaps with no idea of what he's going to do with the ball yet is able to go through various options before finding the right man. One way to stifle Bryant is by double-teaming him on pick-and-rolls, which Minnesota did effectively in Game 5. If Bryant has one weakness, it's his stubborn belief that he can extricate himself from any predicament. To elude a double team he sometimes dribbles around madly, almost to midcourt, draining time off the 24-second clock.
It goes without saying that Kobe must be guarded by a team's best perimeter defender, which means that small forwards will challenge him in the Finals, be it Detroit's 6'9" Prince or Indiana's Ron Artest, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.