Advertisement

MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

An 0-2 start is a wake-up call for Shaquille O'Neal and Cavaliers

Shaq's arrival changes the dynamic for Cleveland, which now plays even slower and, apparently, is easier to defend -- not an ideal situation in LeBron James' walk year.

November 01, 2009|MARK HEISLER

Reality 1, Aura 0.

Everywhere else, no matter what happens, the sun comes up the next morning, but not in Cleveland, where the skies wept after the hated Celtics messed up Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James' debut.

You remember that preseason consensus that James wasn't going anywhere?

Looks like it's time for a new consensus.

This just in: NBA sources say James narrows list of teams he'll consider as a free agent if the Cavaliers tank to 15!

Actually, I made that up to get a jump on the 12 ESPN pundits. Of course, for me as well as for them, if any part of it comes true, I had it first.

Actually, the morning after the opener in Cleveland was wet and dark because it rained. Even if people couldn't see it, the sun came up there, too, presumably.

Unfortunately, that night the Cavaliers were torched in Toronto, where the Raptors spread them out and made them look like traffic cones. When Coach Mike Brown tried the O'Neal-Zydrunas Ilgauskas tandem -- 14 feet worth of slow-reacting big men -- so much traffic whizzed around them, it looked like they needed a Boy Scout to help them cross a busy street.

Of course, the Cavaliers saw a slow start coming before they opened, noting it was a long season, etc.

It is, and this should work, maybe 55 wins' worth, which wouldn't be a disaster. It would just feel like one.

If O'Neal has lost his old explosion, he never lost his old aura. Even with Shaq at 37, expectations still bounce off the ceiling.

"Shaq" and "dominant" just seem to go together, as when James noted after O'Neal's 10-point opener, "He was dominant at times."

Holy bat guano! James should have seen O'Neal in his prime, when it was like trying to lasso Godzilla.

Having belatedly discovered conditioning, O'Neal has dialed back the years but he never regained that explosion that set him off from anyone his size, or would have, had there been anyone his size.

You could chart the decline, even in his Lakers years.

Larry Brown, one of the few coaches to dare single-covering him in his prime, tried it with Philadelphia in the 2001 Finals with defensive player of the year Dikembe Mutombo, and the 2004 Finals in Detroit with 6-foot-7 Ben Wallace.

In 2001, O'Neal averaged 33, laying Mutombo out repeatedly with leading elbows in a 4-1 Lakers romp.

In 2004, Shaq averaged 27 as the rest of the Pistons held Kobe Bryant to 39% shooting from the field in a 4-1 Detroit romp.

Still, the aura remained. With O'Neal at 34 in the 2006 Finals with Miami, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson not only double-teamed Shaq, he hacked him, to boot, putting the Mavericks in the penalty early and leaving three of them to guard four Heat players.

Voila! Dwyane Wade shot 73 free throws in the last four games, which Miami won while Dallas owner Mark Cuban railed about the referees.

Two seasons later, about to turn 36, O'Neal went to Phoenix, billed as a savior. He played well, just not well enough to make up for changing their culture, getting the Suns Under the Bottom rather than Over the Top.

In the good news for the Cavaliers, who play half-court basketball, O'Neal fits there.

In the bad news, the Cavaliers should have opened the game up for James long ago.

In their make-or-break season with James, they're committed to playing even slower, meaning O'Neal may be in the wrong place at the wrong time yet again.

The soft-spoken Mike Brown has his hands full. After the opener he criticized himself for taking out O'Neal when he was rolling in the first quarter.

(Imagine that, another debate about the number of minutes or shots O'Neal got.)

In Toronto, Brown emerged from one of those hushed meetings their brass holds so often and said they had to give effort on defense.

Effort never used to be a problem, nor did defense, but it's a new day.

"They're not the greatest in pick-and-rolls," said new Celtic Rasheed Wallace, putting it delicately for once in his life.

"Just keep running the pick-and-roll and keep moving the ball. You'll eventually find an open shot for someone."

What he meant was, involve O'Neal in pick-and-rolls every time down.

It's not easy to reassemble a contender on the fly in the East anymore. With more elite teams than the West, finishing No. 2 means you're potentially looking at Boston or Orlando in the second round; No. 3 at playing the Celtics or Magic on the road in the second round.

After James reached the 2007 Finals, a third annual loss in the East draw may not go down easily at the moment he makes his career choice.

And there, potentially, goes the neighborhood.

James, who reserved this option by taking a shorter deal for less money, won't decide until the end, influenced heavily by the same thing that influences everybody: the last thing that happens.

Nevertheless, the odds dropped on the So Long, Witnesses scenario last week.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|