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Pistons can win with Ben on Shaq
by Dennis Hans / June 6, 2004

The best chance for the Detroit Pistons to upset the Los Angeles Lakers is to make Ben Wallace the primary defender on Shaquille O’Neal. If Shaq averages 40 minutes, Ben should be his super-active nuisance for at
least 30 of those minutes.

Having offered Shaq and the Lakers my advice on ironing out his mechanical and rhythmic free-throw flaws — advice that’s been accepted in Laker Land but, for the most part, not yet implemented — I feel obligated to balance the ledger with advice for the Pistons, so here goes.

Recall the success Shaq had against the Spurs Nesterovic and Horry, and the T-WolvesJohnson, Olowokandi, Miller and Madsen. Only Rasho and Johnson could do even an adequate job. If Phil Jackson had coached the Spurs or T-Wolves, he would have put his 7-foot, all-league defender (Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett) on Shaq from the opening tip of Game 1, and he’d have raised holy hell every time his superstar got whistled for a cheap foul. The refs likely would have cut the superstar sufficient slack to allow him to average 40-plus minutes — most of them on Shaq — just as Hakeem Olajuwon did when the Rockets swept the Magic in 1995. It’s all conjecture, of course, but in my view Flip or Pop would have had a much better chance of ending the Lakers’ season with such a strategy.

Now recall the success the Lakers had on Tim Duncan with the shorter, quicker Karl Malone (supplemented, to be sure, with selective and timely double teams). Malone frustrated Duncan with his quick hands, reasonably quick feet for a 40-year-old dude, and a bag of defensive tricks. Malone also benefited from his superstar status, which immunized him from the cheap fouls that refs routinely call on lesser players trying to guard a two-time MVP.

At the defensive end, anything Karl can do Ben can do better. Ben has the quickest hands and feet of any low-post defender in the league. His tremendous leverage, courtesy of his powerful legs and trunk, will enable him to do a decent job of holding his ground against Shaq without having to resort to gimmicky, off-balance stances like Mark Madsen’s ultra-forward lean. With two Defensive Player of the Year awards under his belt (in a just world, he’d have three), Ben has the stature in the eyes of the refs that will keep ticky-tack fouls to a minimum. He’s
also got a bag of tricks, courtesy of his Virginia Union mentor, Charles Oakley.

Personally, I’ve got no use for Karl’s pull-the-chair stunt and Ben’s selective and strategic flops and flails. If I were commissioner, pull-the-chair would be declared an illegal defensive tactic. (If a defender is permitted to lean on a post player with sufficient force that the post player must lean back just to maintain his position and balance, then the defender should not also be permitted to suddenly withdraw that leaning pressure so as to induce traveling.) As for flopping, I’d brand that as cheating and come down like a ton of bricks on players who do it and coaches who condone it. Flopping barely existed 40 years ago, and no one from that era regrets that they played
in the Pre-Flop Age.

Alas, my wish list of rule changes won’t be in effect for the 2004 NBA Finals, so my advice to Ben is to dip selectively into his bag of ethically dubious tricks, while relying primarily on his immense — and legitimate — defensive smarts, skills and physical gifts. The Pistons can complement Ben’s talents as both a deny-the-ball fronter and a behind-Shaq battler, pocket-picker and swatter by mixing in double-teams sprung unpredictably from different areas by different players. The Pistons might even switch Rasheed Wallace onto Shaq for brief stretches, where on most possessions Rasheed would front Shaq, thus taking advantage of his extra length. This would leave Ben available to come from the weak side to swat the lob away or, if the entry pass is completed, pick Shaq’s pocket.

Larry Brown’s job, in addition to keeping the Lakers offense off-balance and guessing as to what the Pistons are going to do next against Shaq, is to start every press conference and interview with a reminder that Ben is a defensive superstar who rarely fouls; thus, the refs must allow Ben to play his game. During games, Brown should throw a fit whenever Ben is whistled for a cheap foul and regularly remind the refs that Shaq is entitled only to three seconds in the lane and not a split-second more. If Ben can stay on the court for an aggressive, full-bore 40 minutes, the Pistons can win. If he’s limited to a timid, foul-plagued 28 minutes, they can’t.

The longer Ben plays against Shaq, the better he’ll get at defending him. Once Ben establishes in the refs’ minds his style of guarding Shaq, the less likely the refs will be to call ticky-tack stuff.

Some may ask, isn’t Ben too short? No. Shaq doesn’t get many of his shots blocked, and Ben has a better chance of blocking Shaq’s shot — either picking Shaq’s pocket as he begins the shot or getting it as or after he releases it — than any tall Piston, Rasheed included. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will tell you that two of his toughest defenders were 6-foot-8 Dave Cowens and 6-foot-7 Wes Unseld. Ben combines Cowens’ quickness and tenacity with Unseld’s strength and footwork, and he’s a better swatter than either guy ever dreamed of being.

Shaq feasts on tall, immobile lugs. He draws lots of legitimate fouls from them, because he’s so much more quick and agile than they are that he can get beat them to his favorite spots around the basket. Once he catches the ball in close, the only defense is to wrap him up before he dunks. So the less the Pistons use Elden Campbell or Mehmet Okur on Shaq, the better. Even if they don’t commit fouls in bunches, they’re likely to be called for bunches. Unfortunately, when you put Shaq in the bonus you put Kobe, Karl and Fisher in the bonus, too.

Forget Hack-a-Shaq. Shaq is most likely to start shooting free-throws adequately (50-65 percent) in those stretches where he shoots every possession. That’s when it becomes like practice, and it’s easy to achieve reasonable success in that setting. It’s best to keep Shaq’s free-throw attempts at 10 or fewer, spaced across all four quarters rather than clustered at the end of the game.

If the Pistons can hold Shaq’s stat line to something like 8 of 17 from the field and 4 of 9 from the stripe, while keeping Big Ben on the court and playing like a man possessed, they’ve got a shot. If Ben can also sink enough wide-open jumpers to make Shaq pay for playing a one-man zone, the Pistons will shock the world.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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