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Monday, May 12, 2003
Updated: May 14, 12:20 PM ET
Return of the living dead in L.A.

By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

There are several reasons why the Lakers have been able to climb out of the grave so neatly and convincingly dug by the Spurs in Games 1 and 2: Devean George's courage, Derek Fisher's shooting, and, of course, the routine heroics of Kobe and Shaq. But given that L.A.'s victory in Game 3 was the turning point, the most significant reason dates back nearly three years.

Here's what Phil Jackson said about the 1999-2000 Lakers in our book collaboration, "More Than a Game":

Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan
Shaquille O'Neal found a lot more space to move around Tim Duncan and the Spurs in Games 3 and 4.
"I thought that Shaq could be a devastating force receiving the ball near the foul line in the pinch post. His footwork is certainly deft enough for him to easily drive around guys like Ewing, Sabonis and Smits. The advantage Shaq would gain is that it's virtually impossible to double-team someone at the high post. But Shaq's not very comfortable playing so far away from the basket ..."

Necessity overrides discomfort, and necessity was never more apparent than during the first two games of this series. These were desperate times for the Lakers. Jackson's repositioning Shaq at the foul line to begin Game 3 was a major strategic ploy. Besides preventing the Spurs from two-timing Shaq, L.A. gained a host of additional advantages.

During the first two games of the series, Shaq had been stationing himself much too deeply in the pivot, leaving himself precious little room to maneuver. By the time he caught the ball and made his move, he was surrounded on so many sides by so many bodies that charging fouls were inevitable. Also, on every turn to the hoop, Shaq had to battle his way through a gauntlet of eager hands. At the high post, however, Shaq has plenty of space to put the ball on the floor and spin and turn to his heart's delight.

What else can Shaq do at the foul line that he can't on the box? Set monster picks. Utilize his passing abilities to the fullest. Present an easy target for the guards to see no matter how much pressure they're under. (Also, by thusly centering the ball, the Lakers have an undefensible entry to their offense.) Open the paint for Kobe's aggressive forays to the hoop. Take advantage of the Spurs' aggressive defense by creating backdoor opportunities for the Lakers' wingmen.

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson caught the Spurs flat-footed with his strategy.
The high-posting of Shaq also works because the alteration does not compromise the triangle offense. Indeed, the only difference is that the focus is moved from either of the base-angles to the apex. In this case, the split-action (whereby the player who passes to Shaq subsequently sets a screen away from the ball, then cuts to the basket) is simply designed to produce open jumpers instead of layups.

And there are other, more subtle effects of this radical strategy.

The Lakers, after being humbled in San Antonio, needed something to boost their game-chops. By giving them a brand-new game plan, Jackson shook his players out of their rigid and self-defeating mindset and reinforced their confidence in the coaching staff's ability to devise ways in which games, and championships, can be won.

At the same time, the unexpected tactic planted a seed of doubt in the Spurs' minds. Hey, what's this? Are their coaches more knowledgeable and more flexible than ours? How come we weren't prepared for this possibility? The result was a slight hesitancy in the Spurs' play. Shots that singed the net in San Antonio now bounced awry. What had previously been crisp, decisive passes were now slightly off the mark. The Spurs' belief in their ability to smother the triangle was shaken.

And, suddenly, the Lakers were the ones who were playing with confidence.

Digging a hole
So how did the Lakers fall into such a gaping hole to begin with?

For some answers I went to an ex-Laker player who said. "The guys were too complacent all season long. I kept hearing, 'Don't worry, we'll turn it on in the playoffs.' But except for a few stretches against Minnesota, I didn't see them take their game to another level. They were lazy and stagnant and arrogant. All the defending champs had to do was to throw their jocks on the court, and the other team would fold. They forgot how hard and how long they had to work to win those rings."

Kobe Bryant
For all his talk about playing unselfishly, Kobe Bryant hasn't convinced everyone.
A longtime NBA coach adds his opinion: "Kobe's always talking out of both sides of his mouth. When the camera's pointing at him, he's all about playing unselfishly, moving the ball, and staying within the offense. But he also lets it out that he can score any time he wants to. So what happens when he goes out and shoots 7-for-25? Does that mean he only wanted to score seven times and didn't want to score the other 18 times? And why doesn't he just score a 120 points to make sure the Lakers never lose a game? Kobe has a nickname around the league, Frank Sinatra, because no matter what, he only wants to do it his way."

The one-time Laker takes this anti-Kobe animus a step farther: "If it wasn't for Kobe's aborting the offense and taking so many wild shots in Game 1, the Lakers would have easily won that game."

Hold on, there's more: "Why were there so many offensive fouls called on Shaq down in San Antonio?" the coach asks. "Because the NBA is not going to let Shaq kick Tim Duncan's butt. No sir, the NBA absolutely has a stake in their double-MVP outplaying Shaq. If Shaq destroys Duncan, then the MVP award doesn't count for diddly."

Conventional wisdom says the NBA needs the Lakers in the finals to maximize its TV ratings, especially if the alternative from the West is small-market San Antonio or Sacramento. But the league is sensitive to an undercurrent of resentment toward L.A. and its recent dominance.

Besides Duncan being protected, what else is going on? "David Robinson is playing scared," the coach says. "He wants to retire with his teeth and his face intact. Malik Rose is a true warrior, though. But it's not Shaq's fault that Rose is only 6-foot-7, and that his elbow is at the level of Rose's face. And, hey, when a big guy and a smaller guy collide, the big guy is the one who's going to be left standing. Is it fair to tag the big guy with a foul because he's bigger and stronger? Using the same logic, every time a small guy jets past a big guy, the refs should call the small guy for traveling."

According to the same coach, the several calls against Shaq also have a political basis: "The NBA wants total control of its product. They want to control the media, the coaches and the players. But Shaq won't kow-tow to the league. He says whatever he wants to say, whenever and wherever he wants to say it. That's why the NBA, and the referees -- who, after all, work for the NBA and are its agents -- don't give Shaq the respect he deserves."

That's why Jackson is so intent on criticizing the way the games have been officiated. "And you know what?" the coach says. "Taking the refs to task in the media absolutely, positively gets results."

So, with the series knotted at two games apiece, there's more to the eventual outcome than who scores the most points. There's ego, psychology, resourcefulness, and, the mother of all causes and effects, politics.

NBA basketball has it all.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."