SHAQUILLE O'NEALlaughs, and the basketball world laughs right along with him. He says he isfrom another planet but can't prove it because "the files" weredestroyed. (Cue laughter.) He offers a political analogy to describe PatRiley's decision to replace Stan Van Gundy as Miami Heat coach early in theseason. "Bush came down," Shaq cracks, "and said, 'I'm taking over.You with me or not?'" (Cue laughter.) He deflects questions about hisweight as easily as he once deflected the shots of mortals who ventured intothe lane. "You've never seen anyone this big, this sexy, move thisway," Shaq says. "Sometimes my weight is going to be a higher number,and you earthlings, when you hear a high number, because of your level ofthinking, you're automatically going to think it's fat." (Cuelaughter.)
But in the firsttwo games of the NBA Finals, the Big Funnybone suddenly became the Big Vacuum,his tepid play no laughing matter for a Heat team down 2-0 in the series.Following Game 1, during which Shaq took only 11 shots and scored a modest 17points in a 90-80 loss, the Dallas Mavericks prepared for a Shaq-plosion inSunday's Game 2. So they marshaled their forces, double- and triple-teaming theDiesel even earlier than they had in the opener, generally making sure that the7-foot Dirk Nowitzki was the doubler who joined either of the other 7-footers,Erick Dampier or DeSagana Diop. The result? Shaq took only five shots, made twoand finished with five points, playoff-low numbers that one expects out of,well, Dampier or Diop.
Shaq, who isshooting free throws as if the basket were a moving target (2 for 16 in thefirst two games combined), didn't even play the final 15 minutes of the 99-85Heat loss. This would normally be the place to insert a humorous quote fromO'Neal, something along the lines of "The Big Bear has been hibernating,but winter will be over when we get back to Miami for Game 3." But Shaq hadnothing to say, disappearing into the night immediately after the game andleaving it to others to explain his on-court disappearing act.
"It's goingto be hard for him to get more shots if they continue to double-team him andhe's kicking it out," said Dwyane Wade, who averaged 25.5 points in thefirst two games but didn't play nearly well enough to compensate for Shaq'splaying like a mere earthling. (Hey, it's his line.) The question is whetherthe Dallas D is that good or whether O'Neal is making too many Shaq-rifices infinding the open man. You know the answer: a little bit of both. The Mavs wereunderstandably coy, almost paranoid about sharing their secret, but one WesternConference assistant said, "Dallas is doing a great job of mixing coverageson Shaq. One time they double him early, next time they double him late. Andwhen they can, they're denying him the ball completely. He looks uncomfortableand confused."
The throttling ofO'Neal was particularly gratifying for Dampier, who has been referred to as"Ericka" by the Big Prankster. Not only did he outrebound O'Neal 13 tosix, Erick outscored Shaq for the first time in their 24 head-to-head meetings.The good-natured Diop has generally appreciated Shaq's jokes and jabs over theyears. "One time in Cleveland [Diop played for the Cavs for four yearsbefore signing with Dallas during the off-season], Shaq bet me $20 that hewould get me on the center tap," says Diop. And did he? "Yes, but Ihave not yet paid him. Maybe I will now."
There was noreason to believe the Mavs would pull back their interior pressure during therest of the series, so it was essential that Shaq become more aggressive,receive the ball on the move and bull his way to the hoop instead of making thetextbook pass out of a double team. Though he has always provided maxentertainment value in the postseason, it was clearly time for him to providemore Kareem and less comedy.