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NBA FINALS: DETROIT 88, LAKERS 68 | Bill Plaschke

Once Invincible, O'Neal This Time Turns Invisible

June 11, 2004|Bill Plaschke

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — He used to carry them across stages like these, lift them through moments like this.

Shaquille O'Neal used to own these NBA Finals and, so too the Lakers, climbing atop his giant shoulders for most of the last five years as he led them laughingly through dark corners, jeering strangers, unyielding aches.

On a rainy night near Detroit on Thursday, the scenery was the same, the journey different.

The giant's shoulders slumped. His knees buckled. His smile disappeared.

His Laker passengers didn't cruise, they careened -- jostled and thrown and banged around for nearly three hours by a Detroit Piston team that buried them by 20 and resurrected a question.

Has the joyride ended?

Can Shaquille O'Neal still hoist the Lakers when no one else can?

Can the man who has dubbed himself the Most Dominant Ever still dominate enough to turn a contender into a champion?

Is Shaq still enough?

"Yeah," he said firmly after the Pistons' 88-68 victory in Game 3 of the Finals. "Yeah, of course, like especially if they are playing me one-on-one, of course. No question."

Yet during a scrum in which the Pistons took a two-games-to-one series lead while establishing themselves as the smarter, better team, there were nothing but questions.

Everyone figured Piston Coach Larry Brown, who said he felt like suicide after allowing Kobe Bryant to beat him in Game 2, would double-team his nightmare, and he did.

What few figured was that O'Neal, left to go jumbo-a-mano with several smaller or slow Pistons, would not make Brown pay.

Ben Wallace, whose giant afro barely reached O'Neal's shoulder blades, outrebounded him by three.

Elden Campbell, Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur and Wallace combined to make exactly as many baskets.

O'Neal finished with only 14 points, one assist, two missed free throws and zero blocked shots.

We saw more of Eminem, and he and his 2,450 tattoos left at halftime.

We felt more from the fire that burned above the Palace baskets, and that was extinguished by the opening tip.

O'Neal was so invisible, the odd crowd of 22,076, when it wasn't saving its biggest cheer of the night for spectator Steve Yzerman, spent more time booing Luke Walton.

"I think most of it was effort related," O'Neal said, referring to the entire team.

Was it? While that's been an easy reason to rip O'Neal's inconsistent performance this spring, maybe the issue is deeper.

Maybe it's age related. Maybe it's agility related. Maybe it's weary legs and battered body related.

Given that O'Neal has averaged just 18 points a game this postseason on one day's rest -- and 25 a game when he has more rest -- maybe he simply can no longer physically, consistently dominate a postseason series.

"I've got to get it, though," O'Neal said, referring, of course, to the basketball.

It's what he always says after games like these, calling for the ball like a schoolboy in the final minutes of recess, but maybe it's more than that.

Nobody throws you the ball on rebounds, right? In the first quarter Thursday, O'Neal had half as many rebounds -- two -- as that guy playing on one leg named Karl Malone.

O'Neal's evening ended just as quietly and ignominiously. With five minutes left, the Lakers cut the lead to 16 points and the Pistons seemed rushed and Chauncey Billups missed a silly three-pointer.

But that waif Tayshaun Prince -- two of him equals one Shaq, right? -- knocked the rebound away from O'Neal.

And then Ben Wallace dunked behind him.

O'Neal ended the game on the bench, staring and shaking his head, suddenly looking as much like Sabonis as Shaq, looking like the worst adjective that one could bestow upon any 32-year-old superman.

Ordinary.

Instead of acting like the MDE, he played more like he belonged to AARP.

Instead of a Shaq, he played like an O'Neal.

"I don't think we're there yet, I really don't," Rick Fox protested. "I think Shaq can still dominate in these games. But I think we need to go back to living and dying with him and picking up the pieces from him again.

"Let's give him 25 shots a game. Let's see what happens. The more involved he is, the more effective we are."

Indeed, O'Neal has taken more than 20 shots only once during this postseason. But the Lakers lost that game in San Antonio. However, when he gets more than 15 rebounds, they are 5-1.

It is rebounding, not passes from teammates, that also kept O'Neal from the foul line Thursday, as he shot only two free throws, missing both, his lowest total in years.

The Pistons not only outrebounded the Lakers by four overall, but more than doubled them in offensive rebounds (15-7).

It's not just shots. It's fighting for shots. It's running for shots. It's creating shots.

"He even lost a couple of balls that he had inside and couldn't control the ball when he would get it inside," Coach Phil Jackson said of O'Neal. "He didn't get a whole lot on the offensive boards tonight either. Those things hampered his effectiveness."

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