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Shaq content to be Cavs' third option ... or so he says

Chris Webber once told me a story about how he, Juwan Howard and JalenRose would sit around their dorm room at Michigan and have to scrape together $10 so they could get a pizza and sit up all night talking. At the time, I recall thinking, How can these guys, three key members of the top recruiting class in college basketball, not have 10 bucks among them? Later, of course, it became known that Webber had more than enough money, loaned illegally to him by a Michigan booster.

But Webber perfected the art of b.s. He's such a gregarious person that you honestly want to believe what he is telling you.

Reminds me of Shaquille O'Neal.

In personality, Shaq is similar to Webber. When asked recently at what point he accepted his position as the second or third guy on a team, O'Neal said, "When I looked up and saw that I was right behind Wilt Chamberlain in scoring."

Technically, he is right. He is one spot removed from passing the Big Dipper. However, he is more than 3,300 points back, so right behind is a bit of a stretch.

The point is that O'Neal is not always dealing with the reality of the situation, particularly when the reality tends to diminish his eminence. And the reality is that it took a new, less-involved role for Shaq in order for the Cavaliers to hit their stride, which they clearly have done. If their two-game regular-season sweep of the defending champion Lakers is any indication, O'Neal could well be on his way to a fifth championship. By O'Neal's mathematics, that's Russell's minus Wilt's minus Kobe's titles.

Two months ago, it was realistic to criticize the Cavs for the acquisition of O'Neal, who seemed to clog up the middle for the hard-driving LeBron James and create the same sort of chaos on both ends of the floor that we witnessed during his brief stay in Phoenix. But to their credit -- and mostly to the credit of James, who runs that team so wonderfully -- the Cavs have figured out how to incorporate O'Neal into their system.

"I think it was an adjustment for everyone," James said. "Not just Shaq, but Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon and all the guys we didn't have last year. That happens when you have new guys.

"But at this point, for the most part, we know where guys want the ball and where their good spots and bad spots are. We have ironed that out at this point where we are playing good basketball."

Cavs coach Mike Brown seems to have discovered that less is more when it comes to O'Neal. Through November, Cleveland was 7-4 when O'Neal was playing and averaging 25 minutes a game. But whether it was catering to O'Neal's shoulder injury that kept him out for six games or because Brown noticed that James seemed to thrive in O'Neal's absence, he has cut O'Neal's minutes to 22 a game. Since that time, the Cavs have gone 23-6 and own the best record in the NBA.

"It has been by design with Shaq," Brown said. "Obviously he's a little older now, and the more we can help save his legs during the regular season, the better. He may not play a ton of minutes, but he has been extremely effective for us. Right now there is really no need to play him [big minutes] all these games we have during the regular season."

To his credit, O'Neal, averaging career lows in points (11.2), rebounds (6.7) and blocks (1.1), has accepted his role as the team's third option, behind James and guard Mo Williams, who was recently sidelined for at least a month with a sprained shoulder.

"If you think about people in my position, people who have dominated the ball my whole career, I could easily come here and try to dominate the ball," said O'Neal, who is averaging only 8.2 shots per game. "But being a student of the game and knowing how the game is changing [he motions his head toward James], that would be a very ill-advised move.

"Plus, as a fan of the game, I have three sons who love LeBron. I would rather them come and watch the game and let him get off then throw it down to the Big Fella 20 or 25 times, with the Big Fella being 38 [years old]. The young Shaq, yeah, throw it to him 25 or 30 times. But [James] is 25 or 26, so he is going to take most of the shots. Mo is going to take the second most and I will get my eight or 10. Which is fine. We have been wining like that."

See? You want to believe what he says. Even if he is not quite certain if he is 37 or 38. (He'll be 38 in March.)

What looked like a mistake by general manager Danny Ferry early on now looks like a shrewd move, in part because the Cavs have in backup center ZydrunasIlgauskas the player the Suns never had during O'Neal's tenure there. Namely, Ilgauskas does not replicate O'Neal. When he enters the game, he changes the dynamics dramatically, forcing teams to adjust their defense, their thinking and often their personnel.

"One thing you know," James said, "is Shaq is going to be in the paint, and when you run the pick-and-roll, he is going to roll for the most part. And Z is going to pop. The difference between Shaq and Z is that Z spreads the floor more than Shaq and Shaq controls the interior.

"We are going to do what benefits us."

The $20 million question (which happens to be O'Neal's salary) is, What happens with the center rotation when the postseason arrives?

"Depends on who we are playing," Brown said. "If we are playing a team where we can match up without him playing big minutes, then it probably will happen. But if we are playing Orlando or Boston or something like that, his minutes will go from 21 to 30 or whatever we need him to go."

And the world will be watching, which, regardless of what pizza story O'Neal tells, always tends to inspire him to play his best.

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