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The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

Lakers and Shaq Don't Have Time for the Pain

January 05, 2002|J.A. Adande

Shaquille O'Neal stopped, which was a sure sign he was ready to go.

He finally had good news to report, so he paused on his way to the locker room after the Lakers finished their morning shootaround Friday and talked to reporters.

"The general is back," he said.

OK, so it's not exactly Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines. It's Shaq returning to active duty after a five-game stint on the injured list to give his sore and arthritic toes a break.

It's not all good now. The story's not over. It's not as if someone can just kiss O'Neal's feet and make them all better. (Anyone willing to perform that task deserves more money than O'Neal makes.)

Time off doesn't really improve his feet, it just makes them hurt less and reduce the swelling. He's back now simply because it's as good a time as any.

"They were gracious enough to give me five games [off] and I'm ready," O'Neal said.

He doesn't want to spend the rest of the year hopping off and on the injured list, losing his rhythm and then regaining it while the team adjusts back and forth

"I'll probably be with the team the remainder of the season, ready to go," O'Neal said.

This is the new normality. It includes three pills a day and soaking his feet in a tub of ice for 15 minutes after every game. (He's putting off acupuncture until later.)

And it's really the only thing intriguing about this team until the playoffs start. Can Shaq still be Shaq?

He looked as dominant as usual Friday, throwing down ferocious dunks and even flossing a crossover dribble in the Lakers' 118-86 victory over the Phoenix Suns

In only 24 minutes he had 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

Then again, he did most of his damage against Jake Voskuhl. Voskuhl is one of those noncenters who populate the NBA now. Friday, Voskuhl did little more than serve as Stephon Marbury's personal cheerleader and yell "Yeah, Steph!" whenever Marbury made a layup and drew a foul. He sure didn't provide much resistance to O'Neal.

O'Neal usually looks like himself during the game, when the adrenaline's coursing through his system and he's too busy mugging for the crowd to grimace.

But afterward, on the walk to his car through the cold Staples Center tunnels, he often has a noticeable limp.

The thrill of victory, the agony of the feet.

The most ominous talk of the night came from Phil Jackson. He recalled how a similar toe injury essentially led to "the demise of Walt Frazier," Jackson's hall of fame teammate with the New York Knicks.

O'Neal likes to think of himself as unstoppable and indestructible. He's standing so tall above the NBA landscape, with no one to play Russell to his Chamberlain, and now the most serious threat is his little piggies.

"Big things don't hurt me," O'Neal said during a reflective moment before the game. "Little things hurt me. Why is that?"

It's like the common cold killing off the aliens in "The War of the Worlds." (Or, in the modern version, a computer virus doing in the space guys in "Independence Day.")

No one should be too large to overlook the details. In this case, O'Neal needs to work harder to keep weight off in the summer. Dr. Stephen Lombardo, the Lakers' team physician, said O'Neal's weight didn't contribute to his condition. But in the layman's opinion--and Jackson's--the extra pounds can't help it.

What also won't help is the All-Star game. O'Neal won't say what his plans are, but he should take the weekend off. He spent a week in Philadelphia during the finals last year, saw the zoo, had his cheesesteaks, so there's no need to go back.

He worked out hard during his absence--he was often in a heavy sweat by the time his teammates arrived at practice--and he looks the way he did at the end of last season.

But there's always those feet in that tub of ice. A vulnerable O'Neal does keep the season interesting.

Ever since Shaq and Kobe did their Hotsync operation last spring, the Lakers had been unbeatable. Without O'Neal, Laker games were unpredictable, the team a group of scrappy rebels.

"It taught us that we have to depend on each other," Lindsey Hunter said. "We can't just expect one or two guys to do it all. Everybody has to be a part of this, no matter how big or how small it is."

Take Samaki Walker. He blocked 16 shots the past four games, turning into a defensive stopper after opponents took O'Neal's absence as an open invitation to drive to the hoop.

"I figured they would do that," Walker said. "I didn't mind. It helped my numbers a lot."

Walker showed he can block shots. But O'Neal doesn't have to touch the ball to make a difference. He showed how on successive defensive stands in the first quarter, when he forced Marbury to alter a shot, then scared Voskuhl into traveling.

We saw on Friday that Shaq can still be Shaq. When he can't be, he says he won't even try anymore. Jackson keeps using Arvydas Sabonis as an example of how injuries forced a player to change his game, and O'Neal would rather have Phil talk about his free throws than compare him to Sabonis.

"I don't ever want to be that guy, that 'Shaq used to be, a couple of years ago,' " O'Neal said. "If it ever gets to where you guys are saying that constantly, then it will be time for me to do something else."

He's not ready to join the sheriff's department. For now, Shaq's still Shaq. The Lakers are still the Lakers. Good news for the criminals, bad news for the rest of the NBA.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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