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NBA FINALS / LAKERS VS. DETROIT

Team Looking to Get O'Neal More Involved

Big man hasn't been the headlining act on offense in important playoff games, which could change if Lakers can get him more looks.

June 13, 2004|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Shaquille O'Neal is grumpy again, a state of mind he believes is best addressed in the simplest terms: Give me the ball.

In his mind, that's the answer for all that ails the Lakers.

He may be right.

But more often than not this spring, in leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in five seasons, O'Neal has not been the offensive headliner in the team's key victories, instead dominating with defense and rebounding.

Of course, that's not to say he isn't needed to score too.

The Lakers just need more.

"We need the same thing from Shaq every night: his presence," Derek Fisher said Saturday, the Lakers a little more than 24 hours from their most crucial game of the season, tonight's Game 4 matchup against the Detroit Pistons.

"That doesn't mean that he has to dominate the game in terms of scoring 25 to 30 points, but our opponents have to feel him out there."

The Houston Rockets felt him in Game 4 of a first-round series in late April, O'Neal contributing 17 points and 12 rebounds in a 92-88 victory that all but eliminated the Rockets, the Lakers taking a 3-1 series lead.

But the headlines the next day were reserved for Karl Malone, who scored 30 points, the most by a 40-year-old since 1987.

The San Antonio Spurs felt O'Neal in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals last month, when he had 28 points and 14 rebounds in a 98-90 victory that squared the series after the Lakers had trailed, 2-0.

But the story of the game was Kobe Bryant, who scored 42 points after earlier in the day pleading not guilty to a felony sexual assault charge in Colorado.

The Minnesota Timberwolves felt O'Neal in Game 6 of the conference finals two weeks ago, when O'Neal scored 25 points in a series-clinching victory that put the Lakers in the Finals for the 22nd time since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

But the headlines the next day more prominently mentioned reserve guard Kareem Rush, who'd made six of seven three-point shots and scored 18 points.

O'Neal has been good, but he has not been dominant.

"He's had tremendous ballgames for us," assistant coach Kurt Rambis said of the 32-year-old center, who has averaged 20.9 points through 20 playoff games, his lowest average since his rookie season with the Orlando Magic. "Has he gone out and had the 45-point night? No, he hasn't done that.

"But he's had some tremendous defensive efforts and rebounding efforts for us. And those have had huge impacts on games for us."

So much so that they'd like to see more, before it's too late. The Lakers trail in the series, two games to one, and could be eliminated before returning home.

"We encourage him to get involved at the defensive end," Rambis said. "We want him to pursue an excellent game at that end of the floor and to have a mind-set to dominate at that end of the floor. We know his instincts are going to tell him to score, so we try to push him to excel in those other areas."

Curiously, the best way to do that might be by meeting his demands.

Give him the ball.

"The offensive end of the floor seems to activate him defensively," Rick Fox said. "That's just a fact about Shaquille, and it's not anything we don't know. So if that's the case, to unleash the dragon or the beast in him, [feed] him. Feed the big dog -- isn't that what he always says? -- so he can guard the gate, guard the yard."

O'Neal didn't share his thoughts Saturday, skipping his mandatory meeting with the media after the Laker bus arrived about 15 minutes late to the Palace of Auburn Hills. But he had made his feelings known after scoring only 14 points, a playoff career low, in Thursday night's 88-68 loss. When asked later about the ball being kept out of his hands, he said, "Yeah, the story of my life, buddy."

The Lakers, though, seem more concerned with O'Neal going to get the ball, particularly when the Pistons miss shots. With Malone hobbling about on an injured right knee, the Pistons took 19 offensive rebounds in Game 2, 15 in Game 3.

"I think Shaq's rebounding is really key, especially with Karl banged up a little bit," Fisher said. "We need one of those 20- to 25-rebound games from Shaq in order, I think, to really help us kind of hold this team down offensively."

In June, the Lakers are again looking to lean on O'Neal. And hoping that O'Neal, with or without the ball, will lean his big body on the Pistons.

"They have to feel him," Fisher said.

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