He was as proficient at blocking out the pain Wednesday night as blocking out on the boards, which is saying something.
Only the numbers could speak so loud. Shaquille O'Neal had 33 points and 22 rebounds to power the Lakers to a 99-93 victory over the Phoenix Suns before a capacity 17,505 at the Great Western Forum, his best production on the boards since coming to Los Angeles.
That gives the Lakers a 2 1/2-game lead over the Suns for second place in the Pacific Division, a matter compounded in the Lakers' favor in that they have taken control in the race for the tiebreaker, earning a 2-1 lead in the season series with an April 10 meeting to go and a 4 1/2-game lead for the better conference mark, the second criteria.
The abdominal muscle still occasionally hinders O'Neal and the ingrown nail on the left big toe has shadowed him for weeks. Now comes a sore left knee, an injury he sustained Sunday at Vancouver and that bothered him in the first quarter Wednesday.
But the aches soon belonged mostly to the Suns.
"Like a man playing with boys," said Robert Horry, himself a factor with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The ninth 30-20 of his career came after O'Neal had continued to struggle on the boards, managing consecutive outings of double figures in rebounding only once in the 10 games of March. Maybe this was the compensation.
"We realize they are right behind us," he said. "We just wanted to put a complete game together and play hard. We did that."
Kobe Bryant still hasn't put many complete games together since the All-Star break. He has been getting no time at point guard and only spot duty at small forward since the play of Elden Campbell has allowed Horry to slide back over to his former position, but at least the SuperSonics were gone. For a game.
Having to deal with Seattle's bigger small forwards, Detlef Schrempf and Jerome Kersey, on Monday was a key factor in Coach Del Harris limiting Bryant to 14 minutes, 12 less than his season average. Bryant's production dropped in kind, even more so, to where he took only one shot, a missed three-pointer in the fourth quarter, and went scoreless for the first time in 75 games.
"The defense didn't bother me," he said.
The lack of minutes did.
"Basically," Bryant said. "But you go through that every once in a while."
A while may be coming again Friday, when the SuperSonics come to the Forum. But at least he had Wednesday--16 minutes in the first half alone, even after his first attempt, a turn-around from the right side, sailed a foot over the rim, and even though he made only one of seven shots in that time.
Against the Suns' small-ball offerings, Bryant played 28 minutes in all, making one of 10 shots.
The trick for the Lakers, in the meantime, was to not get drawn into playing a shootout game, a style in which their opponent flourishes. Not because the Lakers are unable to keep the chambers full, though.
"Because we have Shaquille and they don't," Harris said.
There wasn't any uncertainty about that, after the first two meetings in which O'Neal made 22 of 38 shots (57.9%) and got 56 points and 21 rebounds. Just to make sure, he apparently aimed for a 56-21 in the first half.
The opening quarter was mild enough, eight points as he made three of seven shots, all the misses coming from close range, and seven rebounds. Then came the second quarter: 12 rebounds.
About one more than his season average for a game.
Six more than all the Suns had in the same 12 minutes.
One more on defense, in fact, than the Suns had at both ends in the period.
By halftime, O'Neal had 19 rebounds and 17 points, even while going six of 17 from the field. By midway through the third quarter, he already had the third 20-20 in nearly two seasons as a Laker and the 18th of his career.
But while it may have been impressive, despite the inability to finish, it wasn't overwhelming. The Suns, even on the second night of a back-to-back, were down only 75-73 heading into the fourth.