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Now or Never, It's Time for Shaq

April 07, 2002|Mark Heisler

MIAMI — OK, Laker fans, it's ... exhibition season!

In April, the NBA awakens as if from a nap, emerging from the shadow of the NCAA tournament and the baseball openers, readying itself for its stretch run and its own moment in the spotlight.

The Lakers, of course, have been awaiting this moment since the season started, although now that it's here, it isn't going the way they pictured it.

They came east last week off wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs, hoping to reprise last April's season-ending streak. Instead, Shaquille O'Neal sat out and they lost twice, the second time so badly, the debate among them was whether they had "quit" (the word used by guileless Samaki Walker) or just uninspired and numb (more experienced spokesman Rick Fox's perspective.)

In either case, the moral of the story is the same: This ain't last April.

Forget the Kings. Barring a collapse by a team that just won seven in a row, six on the road, Sacramento has locked up the No. 1 seed and will have home-court advantage in any series.

Now the Lakers are looking over their shoulders, not ahead. The Spurs-Dallas Maverick winner is automatically seeded No. 2, but home-court advantage in any second-round meeting with the third-seeded Lakers would still be determined by the best record.

Let's just say that opening against probable No. 6 seed Portland, which has been hot since the All-Star break, then going to San Antonio or Dallas before going to Sacramento to play the Kings wouldn't be the easy route for the Lakers.

Of course, everything depends on O'Neal, which is reassuring to them, since no one can stand up to him ... or less so if the wrong Shaq shows up.

When the trip started, teammates were praising O'Neal for "pacing himself" so deftly, as Kobe Bryant had put it, a nice way of saying Shaq had looked like a zombie in the first half against the Spurs last Sunday before stepping up at the end.

Someone asked Coach Phil Jackson in Washington if O'Neal had, indeed, been pacing himself for the last five or six games.

"Fifty or 60 games?" said Jackson, rephrasing it with his little Cheshire Cat grin. "I think he's just waiting until he really has to get into it. It looks like he warms up, to me. It looks like he gets more mobility as the game goes along.... We're hopeful. We think he's getting more active as the season goes on and we'll see what it looks like tonight."

That night O'Neal looked more energetic, but his struggles continued. He had already missed one dunk by the time Jahidi White blocked one of his shots, after which Shaq grabbed the ball back, went up to hurl one down that they'd have felt in Annapolis and blasted it off the rim, too.

The Lakers nevertheless rolled to their third consecutive win. The players told one another it was on again. The Washington media gushed, "They're throwing their switch again."

Wizard Coach Doug Collins called them "a vastly superior team ... the big-time favorite ... a very underrated defensive team. When they have to, they stop you," adding he'd been impressed as well by their "championship arrogance."

"The [Chicago] Bulls used to have that same swagger," said Collins, "that they knew they were better than you."

In New Jersey the next night, without O'Neal, the swagger disappeared. Down 19 early, the Lakers played bravely but lost.

Two nights later in Boston, the Lakers, themselves, disappeared in a team no-show.

O'Neal is expected back today, but which one will he be? There have been so many. Let us count only the recent ones.

There was the 90% Shaq On A Mission in Jackson's first season, playing harder than he had since his first years in the league but with all the craft he'd acquired since, missing by one vote of becoming the first unanimous most valuable player selection (seeming to anger him at least as much as flatter him, in true Shaq style) ... turning it up to 100% Fearsome Shaq in the NBA Finals when he averaged 38 against the Indiana Pacers.

There was last season's 80% Shaq In a Snit when he came in heavy and fenced with Bryant ... before turning it back up to 90% Shaq in the playoffs ... and becoming 100% Fearsome Shaq in the Finals when the Philadelphia 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo was lucky to escape with his life.

This season, it has been Shaq Lite, the 70% version, overweight with sore toes, although still a legitimate MVP candidate and, when the mood is right, the ultimate terror weapon.

If his current mood means anything, he isn't feeling great. He has been grumpy and increasingly unavailable in recent weeks. Friday in Boston, a dozen reporters, plus an ESPN camera crew, semi-circled him before the game, but got nary a word.

Of course, it's still a tad early in the season, as Shaq reckons it, but his time is coming.


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