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Bill Plaschke

This Performance Is Anything but Limp; It's Unforgettable

June 08, 2002|Bill Plaschke

You forget how he limped.

Nearly all season Shaquille O'Neal limped, hobbling to the car, walking on the side of his foot to the airplane, wincing when nobody was watching.

You forget how he boiled.

Weary of constant fouling, he took a swing at Chicago's Brad Miller and was suspended three games and was ripped in this column and hid from the media and never threw another jab all season.

You forget how he was embarrassed.

Midway through these playoffs, Phil Jackson confronted him for his inactivity, then told newspaper reporters, humiliating O'Neal such that he angrily waved Jackson away during an important timeout.

You forget these things, watching the best center in the history of basketball carry the Lakers through these NBA Finals, his latest a 40-point effort in the Lakers' 106-83 victory over the New Jersey Nets in Game 2.

You should not.

The astonishing thing about his easy domination is that it comes at the end of his most difficult season.

The amazing thing about Superman is that he is human.

Or didn't you hear the story he spun late Friday night when asked for a reason he trampled the Nets again and gave the Lakers a two-games-to-none lead?

Realistically, this is his stage and the Nets simply can't stop him.

Typically, though, he turned it into a potty joke.

"That game was dedicated to Rick Adelman," O'Neal said, referring to Thursday's charge from the Sacramento King coach that O'Neal steps over the line on his free-throw attempts.

Then he explained exactly how he heard the quote, describing a scenario that was as pleasant as the sweat that he had just dumped over nearly a dozen prone Net defenders.

"I'm at home, in the bathroom ... flipping through channels, and he's complaining about how I'm stepping over the line," O'Neal said of Adelman. "So the game's dedicated to him. I don't believe people still question me after all the tough times and after all the hard work I've been through."

It is easy to forget that he was questioned throughout this season, but he was, and not just by Jackson.

I have criticized him for firing his free-throw coach. On Friday he made 12 of 14 free throws, and has been terrific in every tough spot at the line.

His teammates have subtly criticized him for not getting back on defense. But in two games in this series, he has five blocked shots and 22 defensive rebounds.

Everyone criticized him--and is still criticizing him--for his weight and its effects on his arthritic right big toe. Yet he has played 40 minutes in each of the two games, huffing and hacking and hanging on for as long as the Lakers have needed him.

"Can I go through one day without somebody saying something negative about me?" O'Neal said. "So that's for those who question me. I was upset today."

Whether he really used a throwaway quote from the coach of an eliminated team as motivation--O'Neal is a marketing whiz, remember--he certainly did play angry.

By the time the game was six minutes old, he had converted a left-handed bank, a right-handed bank, a jump hook and his first of nearly two handfuls of dunks.

He soon controlled the game such that public address announcer Lawrence Tanter began pronouncing his name in several different ways, more wildly pitched with each ensuing basket.

"The man was hot, I wanted to give him his props," said Tanter.

Were you watching? What was your favorite?

The time he dunked off an inbounds lob from Rick Fox?

Or maybe when he took a pass from Brian Shaw, threw it back to Shaw, then spun around for an alley-oop dunk?

Byron Scott, the Nets' coach, was watching.

"I just don't know what to do against Shaq right now," Scott said.

Perhaps best of all was O'Neal's second exchange with Shaw--this time with O'Neal throwing a no-look spinning bounce pass that led to a layup.

"He's seemed to gather energy during the playoffs," Jackson said. "You know, that's the remarkable part of it."

So remarkable, in fact, that the Lakers eventually began standing around and watching him, the best seats in the house. And so when O'Neal left the game late in the third quarter with the Lakers leading by 20?

The Nets went on a 15-2 run before O'Neal was rushed back into the game.

At which point he sent a desperately flopping Jason Collins skidding across the floor, then turned and easily threw down another dunk.

Said Jackson: "This was his show."

Said Scott: "He's a monster."

A claim made all the more impressive because O'Neal is clearly also just a man.

Yes, that was his mother sitting courtside Friday, Lucille Harrison shouting and pointing as her son walked off the floor to a standing ovation.

Yes, that was a quiet look for approval that O'Neal gave her as he walked, looking only at her amid the 19,000 screaming and chanting fans, like, did I do good?

She didn't need to say anything. Nobody needed to say anything.

For the biggest man at the end of his longest season, summer is coming and silence awaits.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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