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Diane Pucin

Seeing O'Neal Is Bereaving for NBA

March 10, 2003|Diane Pucin

Argue all you want, Larry Brown says, about the greatness of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady.

Debate for hours about which of those great, young talents, with their lively legs and eye-popping, twisty, turning, slithery moves to the basket, with their fall-away jump shots and rim-bending dunks, should be most valuable player of the NBA this season.

But here's what made Brown's heart sink, his stomach knot, his brain go into overdrive.

"It was when I watched the Los Angeles-Minnesota game Friday," the Philadelphia 76er coach said, "and saw the Lakers remembered all of a sudden that Shaq was there."

Darn it, was what Brown was thinking. Drat. Rats. What bad timing.

What Brown didn't want to see, just before his 76ers arrived at Staples Center, was Shaq shaking the rims, constantly moving, rolling along the baseline and having his teammates feed him the ball, over and over.

"When you see that," Brown said, "you see the Lakers at their best."

As good as Bryant, Iverson, Garnett and McGrady can be, as completely as any of them can take over a game, there is still only one man who can be totally unguardable, eminently unstoppable, fully able to force his will on any game at any time against any team.

And that's Shaq.

That's the Shaq Brown watched score 40 points, grab 14 rebounds and block five shots Friday night.

That's the Shaq who had 39 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots Sunday against Brown's team.

Philadelphia had won 11 of its last 12 games and been the hottest team in the NBA since the All-Star game.

Except for maybe one other team.

Shaq's Lakers.

"A lot of guys can step up and hit shots in this league," Brown said after the Lakers defeated Philadelphia, 106-92. "And I don't want to take anything away from any other player. But Shaq, the way he's playing now, when he's healthy and happy and feeling good, Shaq's presence is something nobody else can offer."

Iverson -- almostsquished when he and O'Neal got tangled under the 76er basket with O'Neal tumbling on top of him -- echoed the views of his coach.

"Shaq's the hardest man in the league to guard," Iverson said. "You can't guard him. Nobody can guard him. You can't guard him one-on-one. If you double him, you have so many guys out there licking their chops for the opportunity to hit a wide-open shot.

"Coach said something earlier, at halftime. He said he doesn't understand why the Lakers don't just throw him the ball every play. By not doing that, you allow teams the chance to keep playing with them. Just imagine if they kept throwing him the ball on every play. Nobody could do anything."

The imagination snoozes at the thought. Shaq shooting layups over Derrick Coleman and Brian Skinner (they "guarded" Shaq for the 76ers) is not scintillating. It is effective, though.

Brown also marveled at the smooth, smothering defense he thought the Lakers played. He was impressed with the liveliness of the Laker offense. But mostly he was awestruck at the intensity, ferocity and single-minded devotion to dominating a basketball game that O'Neal has right now.

"When you've got Shaq playing like he is now," Brown said, "his teammates feed off him, they feed off his energy and that energy makes the Lakers go."

Philadelphia sixth man Aaron McKie would prefer his team had someone, oh, about 7 feet 3 to guard O'Neal. "At least someone to bang on him," McKie said. "You know? I don't think we even made Shaq feel like we played him."

No disrespect to Bryant and his string of 40-point games, hard play, focus and energy, but no one speaks of Bryant in that way.

As Brown noted, all the disagreeable talk about whether Shaq let his team, his fans and his city down by dawdling until training camp was upon him to have surgery on his toe, all the great expectations from elsewhere in the league that the Lakers might be fracturing in splinters because the team didn't win much in November, December and January ... that's all gone now.

And the fear/hope that the Lakers will be fatally hamstrung if they enter the playoffs without home-court advantage for any series?

"A little overblown," Brown said. "It's overblown if you have the best team. If you don't? Then it matters."

Was he saying the Lakers now have the best team? Of course Brown wasn't saying that.

Not out loud. Not for publication.

But what Brown sees is Shaq. A big, sprightly, feisty, happy Shaq.

He didn't want to see that Shaq on Sunday afternoon. He doesn't want to see that Shaq in June either.

You could almost feel the hearts sinking, the palms getting sweaty, the stomachs knotting around the league Sunday when Shaq showed up on national television just as he had on Brown's Friday night video.

Darn it.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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