Perhaps it's because he was raised by a military man--his
stepfather, Phillip Harrison, is a retired Army sergeant--that
Shaquille O'Neal has a tendency to speak about his Los Angeles
Lakers teammates the way an officer might refer to his troops.
Before the Lakers supplied him with marksman Glen Rice, O'Neal
used to say, "I need a shooter," as if one could be reassigned
from another platoon. Los Angeles guard Brian Shaw "was one of my
players in Orlando," says Shaq, referring to the two years they
played together for the Magic. While coach Phil Jackson may be
the team's commander-in-chief, on the field of battle O'Neal is
its general, a role he is handling with more assurance than ever
before. "Shaq was handed the title of leader when he came here
four years ago," says L.A. point guard Derek Fisher. "But being
given the title isn't the same as earning it. This year Shaq has
really earned it."
There is another title O'Neal wants even more, that of NBA
champion, and if he is to earn that one, his leadership skills
will have to pass the sternest test of his eight-year career.
The Indiana Pacers made sure of that with a 100-91 win in Game 3
of the Finals on Sunday, slicing the Lakers' lead in the
best-of-seven series to 2-1. L.A.'s advantage was especially
precarious because the Lakers faced two more games at Indiana's
frenzied Conseco Fieldhouse--where lung power more than makes up
for the star power of the Staples Center--and because the health
of O'Neal's All-Star sidekick, guard Kobe Bryant, was in doubt.
Bryant missed Game 3 with a moderately sprained left ankle, and
although he was optimistic about returning for Game 4, Jackson
admitted that Bryant probably wouldn't be fully effective for
the rest of the series.
That meant Los Angeles would have to do the figurative
equivalent of what Bryant did the day after his injury--hop on
Shaq for a piggyback ride. If anyone could carry the Lakers the
rest of the way, it was O'Neal, whom Jackson called "the first
frontal piece of our offensive machinery." He initially
bombarded the Pacers in L.A., with 43 points and 19 rebounds in
Game 1 and 40 points and 24 boards in Game 2. He then nearly led
Los Angeles to an improbable comeback in Game 3, when he scored
33 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and spearheaded a counterattack
that cut an 18-point Indiana lead to four late in the fourth
quarter. But without Bryant, the Lakers' perimeter players were
overmatched against Reggie Miller (box, page 46) and Jalen Rose,
who combined for 54 points. "We're not coming in to be pushed
around," Rose said after Game 3. "We're not the jayvee team.
They're just like us--they haven't won a championship.
Therefore, if you put pressure on them and get them down by 10
points, you have a chance to be successful."
But Los Angeles's habit of crumbling under pressure so far seems
to be a thing of the past, thanks largely to the burgeoning
leadership skills of the 28-year-old O'Neal. He has cemented his
stature among the Lakers not only with his strengths, which have
been all too evident to the Pacers, but also with his
weaknesses. Even his celebrated difficulties at the foul
line--he was 3 of 13 in Game 3--have indirectly won him greater
respect from the other Lakers, who watch him taking hundreds of
extra foul shots at practice and know he has the key to a high
school gym for late-night free throw sessions.
June 18, 2000
"We see how hard he works at it," says Shaw. "We see how he
takes the criticism and the hard fouls and the crazy Hack-a-Shaq
stuff and keeps at it. It makes you realize that if he's willing
to go through all that without losing his cool, he must want to
win more than anything. If he wants it that badly, you want to
win it not just for yourself but for him too."
His teammates understand that O'Neal has more at stake than any
of them, that he will be the 7'1", 325-pound target of blame if
Los Angeles falls short of the championship. At times he uses
that knowledge to help motivate his teammates. When Bryant was
injured in the second quarter of Game 2, Shaq told them during a
timeout that he expected to be gang-defended even more than
before. "When I kick it out to you guys," he said, "make some
shots for me."
It was his way of telling the Lakers that they were the only
ones who could make Indiana fully pay for double- and
triple-teaming him. He would take the pounding and the potential
embarrassment at the free throw line if they would retaliate for
him from the perimeter, which they did, making 7 of their 15
three-pointers, including 5 of 6 by Rice, in the 111-104 win. "I
know that I can't do it myself," O'Neal says. "Maybe early in my
career I thought I could do everything, but I know now how
important it is to have my teammates helping me out."
O'Neal doesn't lead by cracking the whip at practice, the way
Michael Jordan did, nor is he a locker room orator, as Magic
Johnson was. "He'll have something to say in the big moments of
a game, but it's going to be short and direct," says forward
A.C. Green. "Whenever he opens his mouth we ride on it, because
he doesn't do it that often."
When O'Neal picked up his fifth foul--which was mistakenly
called a flagrant--with 6:40 to go in the fourth quarter of Game
2 and the Lakers leading by eight points, he gathered the team
around him. "I can't repeat exactly what he said," forward Rick
Fox says. "He told us, 'Look, I'm going out for a couple of
minutes,' and then it was 'Bleep, bleep, bleep. Bleep, bleep.
Adds guard Ron Harper, "He went off a little bit in the huddle.
We needed him to do that. He pumped us up, and we held on."
Although he's no motivational speaker, O'Neal is more comfortable
making himself heard than he once was. As a member of the Magic,
he was asked if he planned to yell at his teammates to shake them
out of a slump. "I don't yell," he said. "Maybe I'll just beat
His leadership skills weren't as essential when veteran forward
Horace Grant joined Orlando in 1994-95, allowing O'Neal to
concentrate on points and rebounds. The Magic reached the Finals
but was swept by the Houston Rockets. "Shaq has been here before
and failed, and failure can teach you a lot," Fox said after
Game 2. "It has taken him five years to get back to this point,
and the whole playoffs so far have been a stage to show he can
carry us in the big moments."
The show has developed almost exactly as Jackson envisioned it
when O'Neal visited him in Montana for a get-acquainted session
last summer. "I felt that none of the expectations for this team
could be met unless Shaquille led us there," Jackson says. "From
Day One, he rallied the guys about defense and rebounding and
being responsible for how we approached our season."
But after their Game 3 defeat, it appeared the Lakers would have
to change their approach to the series, because Bryant's absence
hurt them in almost every area. Without him, O'Neal is their
only reliable offensive option; the Pacers can swarm Shaq and
gamble that L.A.'s perimeter players can't make enough shots to
hurt them, a fairly safe bet. Shaw, who replaced Bryant in the
lineup in Game 3, hit only 3 of 10 from the floor, and the three
other starters, Rice, Harper and Green, were a combined 10 of
25. Free to concentrate on O'Neal, Indiana power forward Dale
Davis made sure Shaq didn't get the "deep touches" he likes so
much--a reference to the passes O'Neal catches in the lane, not
to the acupuncture treatments he undergoes--and forced him to
work harder for his points.
Having Bryant on the sideline also limited the Lakers'
flexibility on defense. Bryant is what Scottie Pippen was on
Jackson's Chicago Bulls teams: a defensive Swiss Army knife who
can be used against a variety of players. When Miller, who
missed 15 of his 16 shots in Game 1 and scored only two points
in the fourth quarter of Game 2, got going in Game 3, Bryant
would almost certainly have been assigned to try to slow him
down. Without him, Jackson had no one who was up to the task.
The Lakers headed into Game 4 knowing that may be the case for
the rest of the series, since Bryant says his injury most
affects his ability to move laterally. It's not surprising that
Miller was almost salivating. "It's time to see how they react
when they're being attacked," he said on Sunday night, "instead
of doing the attacking."
Suddenly a series that Los Angeles seemed to have well in hand
had turned into a dangerous exercise. "This game had to do a lot
for their confidence," Fox said of the Pacers. "We've got
ourselves a little bit of a minefield to deal with now."
But by now the Lakers know exactly what to do when they find
themselves in such peril: They follow their leader.
"The playoffs have been a stage for Shaq to show he can carry us
in the big moments," Fox says.