Before congratulating you on your second straight NBA championship, I feel it necessary to call your attention to a sporting event called the Eastern Conference finals. This little affair might have been lost in all the hype surrounding your showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, but to complete your title drive league rules compel you to play the winner of this series, Games 3 and 4 of which took place on Memorial Day weekend at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. By the way, Milwaukee has taken to calling itself the Genuine American City. That's one tag you can't hang on L.A., eh?
Anyway, I want to remind you of your potential opponents in the Finals, particularly since you went a combined 1-3 against them in the regular season, back before Alphonse O'Neal and Gaston Bryant became brothers in arms. They are the Philadelphia 76ers, an amazingly resilient bunch who tied the Eastern finals 2-2 with an 89-83 victory on Monday (Game 5 was scheduled for Wednesday in Philadelphia), and the Milwaukee Bucks, a talented band of perimeter specialists who whipped you in both of your regular-season matchups. A Lakers repeat is what we in the word game call a fait accompli—Coach Phil can explain that to the rest of you or give you a book that does—and you're probably eagerly anticipating as little opposition from the East as you got from the Spurs.
Even if the Sixers don't reach the Finals, you should consider mailing them a congratulatory note—they are, after all, the first summer-league team to make it this deep into the postseason. With MVP and scoring champion Allen Iverson sitting out last Saturday's coyote-ugly Game 3, which the Bucks won 80-74, coach Larry Brown gave key minutes to, in no particular order, Todd MacCulloch, Raja Bell, Rodney Buford and Kevin Ollie. Brown's next move may be to use Li'l G, the midget who stokes up the crowd at home games.
Iverson returned to action on Monday, still nursing a backside injury that is officially called a bruised left sacroiliac joint. So painful was Iverson's posterior that, after being bumped by teammates during the Game 2 lineup introductions in Philadelphia, he winced and said, "I hurt my ass." But Iverson gutted it out in Monday's win, scoring 28 points while 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo dominated underneath (17 points, 15 rebounds).
Whichever team reaches the Finals, immediate story lines present themselves, and your fans in Hollywood love story lines. An O'Neal versus Iverson matchup has been anticipated by many NBA observers since last November, though it would be slightly less appealing now, with Iverson's butt in a sling. "He stands like an old man," said Bucks shooting guard Ray Allen of Iverson after Game 2. Thoughts of someone with an octogenarian's posture challenging Kobe Bryant are not pretty, but as you Lakers know, Iverson is nothing if not gritty. When healthy, he's also fully capable of going off against you, as he did on Feb. 14 in Philly, scoring 40 points in a 112-97 Sixers win.
At the very least there will be an entertaining debate over the MVP voting, which, as I'm sure you remember, Coach Phil considered insulting to third-place finisher Shaq. O'Neal's opposite number, Mutombo, will provide you with some amusing moments too. On occasion (particularly if Iverson is on the bench), the Sixers are forced to throw it to Mutombo on the low block, initiating an aesthetically painful sequence. After receiving the ball, Mutombo sticks out his backside and goes into a kind of full-body shimmy, either to create space or to ward off evil spirits. While turning toward the middle he takes several dribbles that, in the tradition of his fellow Hoya, Patrick Ewing, can be better described as bounce-catch, bounce-catch, bounce-catch. Then he takes two l-o-n-g. whistle-worthy steps and releases an off-balance shot that defies classification. If the 24-second clock has not expired before he fires, you'll have plenty of time to double-team him, should you be so inclined.
If Milwaukee makes it to the Finals, double-teaming the post is one thing you won't have to consider. See, in coach George Karl's offense, there is no post. The Bucks, though, do have a few guys you should worry about, particularly the 6'5" Allen. Actually, we've all been worried about Allen since he took to painting his toenails in the team's colors (green and purple) throughout Round 2 against the Charlotte Hornets, which seemed to confirm the comment Karl made about his star's toughness earlier this season: "I call him Barbie Doll because he wants to be pretty."
In Hollywood, Allen would be cast as the anti-Kobe, for he is that rare star who does not bring da noise, does not bring da funk. Allen was fabulous in Milwaukee's 92-78 Game 2 victory, for example, but his 38 points went almost unnoticed, so fluid and economical are his moves, which include going to his left to fire a drifting jump shot that is close to unstoppable. Just as Coach Phil once wanted more out of you, Kobe, so does Coach George want more from Allen, whom he considers too nice to be the leader of a championship team. "If your best player is a little bit of a turd, a little bit mad all the time, then it's easier for the team to develop a tough attitude," says Karl. See, that's a difference between coach and player right there: Allen would never use the word turd. But Karl has a point. In Game 3 Allen passed up an open 12-footer to get the ball to backup Darvin Ham because it was a designed play. Yeah, as if you'd run that play all the way through, right, Kobe?
This leadership issue is something you Lakers can relate to. Are you Shaq's team or Kobe's? Even with All-Stars Allen and Glenn Robinson on the floor, point guard Sam Cassell has no doubt about who's in charge. "I'm what makes this Bucks train go choo-choo," says Cassell, whose 24 points held otherwise shaky Milwaukee together in Game 3. Should he make the Finals, you will have fun with this man, but be warned: Do not let him seduce you. As he said last week, "Who can resist the Sam Cassell smile?"
Finally, if Milwaukee is your opponent, you should expect colorful exchanges between the coaches. Karl has warmed up by taking potshots at the Sixers, failing to show the proper concern for Iverson's injury ("I hope he's banged up and continues to be banged up") and dissing the 76ers' vaunted D ("Let's just say they have a tremendous defensive reputation. What they have is an amazing ability to foul and not get called for it"). All the while he has hinted that he's only doing what Coach Phil does, i.e., draw attention—and pressure—from his team to himself. Karl has already come up with one billing for the Finals. "It'll be the Zen master versus the steelworker," says Karl, a Pittsburgh native.