Shaq just gets better as playoffs go deeper
Friday, June 7, 2002
LOS ANGELES -- Everybody already knew Shaquille O'Neal is really, really big and really, really good.
What has become apparent each June over the past three years is that Shaq gets even better in the NBA Finals. Part of his motivation is the memory of his humiliation the first time he tried for a championship in 1995.
"When I was in Orlando and we got swept, I made a promise to myself and my family that if I ever get back to the Finals, that won't happen again," O'Neal said Thursday. "When I'm playing that way, it's because I'm on a mission. Right now, my mission is to win No. 3."
O'Neal's 36 points in the Lakers' Game 1 victory Wednesday night upped his average in the past three Finals to 35.5 -- nearly eight points above his 27.6 average during his 10 NBA seasons.
The New Jersey Nets decided to defend him primarily with single coverage in Game 1, and they were coy Thursday when asked whether they planned to double-team more in Game 2 tonight at Staples Center. Tipoff is approximately 8:20 p.m.
The Nets are facing the same dilemma the Philadelphia 76ers faced a year ago and the Indiana Pacers dealt with two years ago: Do they ask one player -- Todd MacCulloch, Aaron Williams or Jason Collins -- to try to stop the most unstoppable force in the NBA one-on-one?
Or do they drop another defender down and leave one of the other two-time defending champions open somewhere else?
It's what makes beating the Lakers such a difficult task.
"Shaq is like a modern Wilt Chamberlain. What he does, you don't see anybody else doing in the history of the game," teammate Kobe Bryant said. "It's ridiculous."
O'Neal's numbers have risen sharply in each of the past three NBA Finals. In 2000, he went from scoring 25.9 points in the conference finals against Portland to 38.0 against Indiana.
In 2001, he went from 27.0 against the Spurs to 33.0 against Philadelphia. This year, he averaged 30.3 against Sacramento in the seven-game Western Conference finals.
When O'Neal and the Orlando Magic were swept by the Houston Rockets in 1995, O'Neal scored 26, 33, 28 and 25 in the four games, and he nearly had a triple-double in Game 1 with 16 rebounds and nine assists.
O'Neal said Bill Walton has given him pointers on passing, and said he developed his low-post game from watching, and then playing against, the best centers of the 1990s -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson.
When he was at LSU, he said he convinced himself that he didn't want to be a player like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who relied on one specialty -- the sky hook.
"I've got 75 moves on each block that I can go to any time," O'Neal said, playfully exaggerating the number.
O'Neal's expanded repertoire was on display in Game 1 as he showed how far he has come since his early days as a guy who did little more than dunk. O'Neal executed a variety of moves leading to drop-step jumpers, baby-hook bank shots, and runners while moving both to his left and his right.
O'Neal's 36-point effort didn't match his Game 1 production of the past two seasons: 44 against the 76ers; 43 against the Pacers.
"Shaq and Kobe, if they get 50 to 55 points, close to 60 points, I can live with that because they're such great scorers," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "My main objective is to make sure the other guys don't hurt us. Rick Fox had 14 (points) and eight (rebounds). That hurt us."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson was asked to rate his three sets of championship teams: the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Bulls and the current Lakers. He said it was difficult to compare the teams because they were so different, one relying on the brilliance and competitiveness of Michael Jordan; the other fueled by the overwhelming physical presence of Shaq.
"One thing that's magnified in this team is the effectiveness of Shaquille O'Neal, his incredible ability to overmatch and overplay and overdominate the other team's centers," Jackson said.
Jackson also politely sidestepped two other questions Thursday: Who would he pick -- Jordan or O'Neal -- if he was starting a team from scratch; and why he gets his clothes from designer David Rickey? (One other Jackson item from Thursday: He believes Dennis Rodman should be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.)
The Nets did have some success in limiting O'Neal. Scott saved rookie center Jason Collins for the final eight minutes and had him foul O'Neal five times when he got the ball deep in the low post. They also pressured the ball on the wings, trying to make it more difficult for the Lakers to get entry passes inside.
New Jersey's jitters wore off in the second quarter, and the Nets were able to whittle a 23-point deficit to three.
Bryant said he expects the Nets to play a much better game Friday night before the series shifts East for one week with Games 3, 4 and 5 in New Jersey.
Jason Kidd had another triple-double in Game 1, his fourth in the past seven games. But many of the other Nets had below-par games, and several fundamentals -- boxing out, making smart outlet passes -- were missing in the first 16 minutes when they dug themselves a 23-point hole.
"We were nervous, tense," Scott said. "Like I said last night, this is the biggest stage in basketball. That was only human nature. Once we settled down, we were OK."
The problem, though, is that OK isn't good enough against the Lakers.
And if the Nets aren't better than OK in Game 2, they'll be heading home with a 2-0 deficit.