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A Tactical Error for Portland

May 21, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

Hack Shaq. Please.

Really, Portland, it's OK.

Hack him on that Superman tattoo, across that Clark Kent smile, upside that Daily Planet butt.

Hack him, rack him, sack him! Go Trail Blazers, go!

It will work, Portland.

Shaquille O'Neal will go to the foul line. He will make only one of two free throws.

You will get the ball back with only a couple of seconds having ticked off the clock.

Your strategy will deliver just as it was designed.

And you, Portland, will be blown away quicker than an umbrella in your city in January.

The opener of the NBA Western Conference finals was endless Saturday, the Trail Blazers fouling the Big Bull's-Eye 12 times in the last 5:27 of the Lakers' 109-94 victory.

But if Portland keeps it up, this series will be short.

"It's just them paying homage to me," O'Neal said brightly after making 12 of 24 free throws in those final minutes.

See how well it's working already?

There is nothing legally wrong with the Trail Blazers' strategy of exploiting the only apparent weakness of the game's best player.

"I like Shaq a lot," Trail Blazer Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He just can't shoot free throws."

There is also nothing ethically wrong, it seems, in trying to win by using all means possible within the rules.

"They'll go to any legal method to find a way to win, and is that wrong?" asked the Lakers' Rick Fox. "Maybe not."

The biggest problem with the Trail Blazers' strategy can be described in simpler terms.

It's dumb.

It's as dumb as Rasheed Wallace getting a technical foul after a play in which he scored.

It's as dumb as Staples Center holding a free viewing party for fans for Games 3 and 4 next weekend--but charging for parking.

It's as dumb as the Dallas Mavericks, the only other team to use the "Hack-A-Shaq" strategy consistently, so what does that tell you?

Cuddling up with O'Neal on Saturday slowed down a Portland offense that had cut a 24-point deficit in half.

One minute the Trail Blazers were running up the court and through the paint and taking advantage of a tired Laker defense whose best player, Kobe Bryant, was on the bench.

A bunch of free-throw pauses later, they were walking up the court against a defense that was refreshed and relieved.

"It changed the momentum of the game," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "It helped us play defense."

Scottie Pippen acknowledged the change in Portland's offensive rhythm, saying, "It was a little tough."

To which Dunleavy wondered, how can you change a rhythm that was never there?

"Did it look like we had any flow?" he asked.

They trailed by 12 points when the strategy began, and by 15 when the game ended, so they certainly lost something.

Climbing on O'Neal also empowered a player who, so far this season, has shown the focus to place every challenge in a bear hug.

Can't get along with Kobe Bryant? Done.

Can't play defense for 48 minutes? Done.

Until now, nobody in these playoffs has specifically challenged him to make free throws and, well, he hasn't, making only 46% in 10 games.

"We kind of, sort of, knew they would do that," O'Neal said, later adding, "It's just my job to go and shoot them."

Then, for the umpteenth time, he added, "I'm on a mission."

Judging by the way he glared at the Portland bench after several free throws, this is a more serious mission than some of the others.

The Trail Blazers should hope he finds another mission, and quick.

"All through my career, I have made at least one," O'Neal said.

While that sounds less than super, it is precisely that statistic that ultimately sinks this strategy.

If O'Neal eventually makes only one of every two free throws--which the law of his averages indicates he will do even if he misses six in a row as he did Saturday--then the Trail Blazers will need to be nearly perfect on the offensive end to use the strategy for a big comeback.

Hard to be nearly perfect when you are walking up the court.

Harder still when your best players are increasingly in foul trouble after all the hacking.

And darn near impossible when, with every made free throw, your embarrassment grows.

"I didn't make the call," said Pippen, who subtly distanced himself from the strategy.

He's not only smart, he's consistent. Last year Pippen also argued against then-Houston Rocket teammate Charles Barkley employing the strategy against the Lakers in the playoffs.

"Shaq made the foul shots, and that made everything look kind of stupid," Pippen said.

Finally, if nothing else, the Trail Blazers should not hack Shaq in Los Angeles.

Surely there were many in the raucous crowd who were ready to leave late Saturday before the fouling started.

Dunleavy kept them there. By insulting their favorite player, he convinced them they were needed.

In a matter of minutes, he performed a feat that opponents have taken years to accomplish.

He filled an L.A. crowd with angry passion.

There has been much Staples floor-rattling this season as the Lakers compiled the league's best home record and then clinched each of their first two playoff series at home.

But it was never louder than Saturday when O'Neal made some of those free throws.

"The way the game was intended to be played, you shouldn't profit from fouling," Jackson said. "Originally, players who fouled had to sit out. But the game has changed. You can now profit from fouling."

Don't listen to him, Portland.

Hack Shaq. We can wait.

Dunleavy, who claimed he would try it again, smiled and said, "I hope you all are getting paid by the hour."

The games will be all of four hours.

But the series will be all of four games.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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