|NBA Finals 2000||
by Gerry Brown
Most people think that the Lakers may have faced a tougher opponent in their seven-game Western Conference Final match-up with the Portland Trail Blazers and that they will have a relatively easy time with the Pacers. Could be.
One interesting subplot is that Bird does have a long history of doing battle with the Lakers. During the 1980s when he won three MVP awards and three world titles, his Boston Celtics met the Lakers in the Finals three times. If for no other reason tune in (all games will be televised on NBC) over the next two weeks to see a Bird team face off against the Lakers one last time.
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Background | The 54th annual NBA Finals tapped off June 7. The Eastern Conference Champion Indiana Pacers face the favored Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers in a Best-of-7 series to decide professional basketball's world championship.
Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA's regular season Most Valuable Player, is going after his first of what could be many NBA titles. A young Shaq played in his first NBA Finals with Orlando in 1995, but his Magic were swept by Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in four games. Some observers think this could be the first Finals sweep since then, but that this time Shaq would be the one with the broom. It's about time, after all Shaq was the one who said, "I've won at every level, except in college and the pros."
Meanwhile, the Larry Bird-coached Pacers are making the franchise's first appearance in the Finals. Bird, who has a little Finals experience, announced months ago that this would be his last season as head coach of the Pacers. And in recent interviews he has sounded as if he's already done his job just getting the team this far.
Challenges | The veteran-laden team will have to pull out all the tricks of the trade they have learned in their collective careers to beat the young and powerful Lakers and their proven winner of a head coach Phil Jackson, who won six NBA titles with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
Not only will O'Neal cause severe match-up problems for the Pacers but Kobe Bryant and Glen Rice are both offensive forces to be reckoned with. In Rice, the Lakers have an outside shooter to rival the Pacers' deadly gunner Reggie Miller while Bryant could potentially have his way with the older, slower Pacer defense. Most people think that Indiana will have to double or triple-team Shaq and when in doubt employ the "Hack-a-Shaq" defense used by Portland, forcing the spotty foul shooter to the foul line at crunch time.
Indiana's Jalen Rose, the NBA's Most Improved Player, will need to come up big on both offense and defense and give Miller some help if the Pacers hope to win the series. Indiana center Rik Smits may be overmatched by Shaq when the Lakers have the ball, but he will need to counter that by scoring at the other end of the floor.