All Is Right With Shaq’s Universe
The postgame shower room was alive with the sound of Shaquille O’Neal bellowing at the top of his lungs, his words clattering off the cinder-block walls, his energy filling his teammates with laughter and hope.
“Shaq!” he cried. “Ah! Ah! Greatest of the universe!”
He sang to the tune of Queen’s “Flash,” sort of.
And when he ducked his head, peered into the locker room and found an audience of reporters, he grinned and sang another verse. O’Neal, so pleased to find his game where he left it last season, and at the very moment he asked for it back, led the Lakers Tuesday night in body and spirit.
He scored 29 points, made 11 of 15 free throws and took 11 rebounds in a 119-109 victory over the Dallas Mavericks at Reunion Arena.
“I can remember telling you guys at home, when I come back in the second half I’m coming back with a vengeance,” O’Neal said. “You all thought I was playing. I’m not playing. I’m serious. I’m coming back at every facet of the game.”
Then he paused and said, “Time to turn my game up.”
It was Kobe Bryant, remember, who said this season was his time to turn up his game, not tone it down, as Coach Phil Jackson once asked.
Not far from O’Neal, across the room, Bryant sat on a trainer’s table, getting treatment for a moderate sprain of his right ankle. He rolled the ankle when he stepped on O’Neal’s right foot late in the fourth quarter, with the Mavericks roaring back from an 18-point deficit to within four.
Bryant had started the game limping on his strained left ankle. He fell to the floor with 2:33 left, gripping the right ankle. He stayed in the game, however, scored on a five-foot hanging jumper, then took a critical rebound at the other end.
He scored 19 points, but missed 11 of 16 shots. Mindful of the creaky left ankle, Bryant had seven assists, which drove a more balanced Laker offense in which Rick Fox scored 22 points and Isaiah “J.R.” Rider 20.
X-rays on Bryant’s right ankle were negative. The left one remained sore. Afterward, he rolled his eyes, knowing the San Antonio Spurs await to-night. The Lakers are 5-7 in the second of back-to-back games.
“I just blocked it out,” Bryant said of playing through the late incident. “You play through the pain and deal with the consequences later.”
Bryant, who already has dealt with a sore shoulder, elbow, hip and knee, said one thing ran through his mind while his face was pressed to the hardwood.
“This is not happening,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
The Lakers will know more today. In the meantime, they are happy to have O’Neal back. Through much of the first half of the season, he brooded. He fought injuries to his feet. His free throws didn’t fall. His relationship with Bryant was picked apart. Even his field-goal percentage dropped. And all that was before Jackson decided O’Neal was not in shape.
In five games since the All-Star break, however, O’Neal has averaged 32.6 points and 12.6 rebounds. He is shooting 58.4% from the line.
“Shaq starts making his free throws, we’re a different ballclub,” Jackson said. “Tonight he made them under the duress of the foul.
“The strategy that fails is really a boost to him and his confidence.”
It drives the rest of the club, as well. Players grinned when O’Neal shimmied past Maverick Coach Don Nelson, creator of the Hack-a-Shaq. They laughed when he skipped past Nelson. They put their hands over their mouths when he shook his head at Nelson.
O’Neal made six of eight free throws in the second half, four of five in the fourth quarter.
“What happens, Shaq’s confidence picks up in his all-around game,” Bryant said. “As a result, his enthusiasm for the game is a lot higher and he’s able to play defense.”
Well, the defense gave up 109 points. Steve Nash scored 31, continuing the successful run for small, quick guards against the graybeard Laker defenders.
But the Lakers had some defensive stops at the end, which is more than they managed Sunday in their loss at Indiana. Besides, if O’Neal is scoring his points, shooting his free throws, bullying other centers, defense might not be as critical.
“He’s Shaquille again,” said Fox, who was eight for 12 from the field and took 11 rebounds. “We’re paying a lot more attention to him as teammates.
“That is the Shaq we’ve missed this season.”
O’Neal said he expected to see Hack-a-Shaq again. But he seemed not at all concerned. After all, he said, he’s the greatest of the universe.
“I think people would rather see me hit a free throw than embarrass their big men,” O’Neal said. “But I told you before, nothing’s going to work.”