Just the Facts, Shaq
It’s a strange bit of Lakerland logic, but the instant Kobe Bryant recognized this was Shaquille O’Neal’s team it started the transition toward the Lakers becoming Bryant’s team.
When Bryant started pumping the ball inside to O’Neal in April, the offense began flowing better, the floor opened up and now Bryant is free to do what he wants, when he wants.
O’Neal doesn’t complain because he still gets his touches and, most of all, the team wins. And wins and wins.
All of this points toward more harmony and success next season. If opposing teams use the new zone defense rules as an excuse to surround O’Neal like Secret Service agents escorting the president, the Lakers will have to initiate their offense from the outside. That means it will be Bryant’s show.
O’Neal sounds ready to give his blessing.
“I don’t have to get all the credit, because I’ve been there before,” O’Neal said by phone Wednesday while the Lakers took the day off. “I was labeled the best player in the league before. My time has passed.
“Now, I’m the most dominant. Ain’t nobody going to dominate like me.
“Kobe gets to showcase all his stuff. Kobe gets to post up, shoot the jumper, get people the ball, play defense, shoot the three.
“I think him and [Tracy] McGrady and [Allen] Iverson are probably the best three players in the game.”
Would that leave Shaq fourth?
“I’m not fourth; I’m the most dominant,” he corrected.
And he has a new role: “I’m Kobe’s bodyguard.”
That might be all there is for him to do, play the enforcer like an NHL goon, under the incoming rules. The changes were suggested by a committee led by Phoenix Sun Chairman Jerry Colangelo and ratified by the NBA.
“I don’t know what the league is doing,” O’Neal said. “If they want to pay me all this money to be a token, then the fans are really going to be [ticked] off when they come to the games and don’t see me doing anything. If it gets to the point where the game’s not fun anymore, I’ll do something else.
“I wish they had legends on the committee, not guys like your man from Phoenix who has the sorriest big men in the league and needs to change the rules. All these suits with their 15 marketing degrees. . . . They need guys like [Charles] Barkley and [Michael] Jordan on the committee, guys who played the game.”
Yeah, but those guys are busy preparing for their comebacks.
“I hope they do well,” O’Neal said. “But 39 ain’t the same as 29.”
O’Neal is 29, still very much in his prime and feeling surprisingly good for this stage of the season. He said the ankle he sprained in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against San Antonio is still a little sore and if it doesn’t feel better by Sunday he will try more aggressive treatment before the NBA finals begin Wednesday.
And he’s as shocked as anyone that the Lakers found themselves with so much time off after dismantling the Spurs.
“We’re actually playing way above my expectations,” he said.
“I knew we were going to breeze through Portland, I knew we were going to breeze through Sacramento,” O’Neal said. “I thought the Spurs were going to fight a little bit.
“We broke their spirits at [their] home, and then, you know how we are at the crib.”
No one’s better at Staples Center--a.k.a. Shaq’s Shack--than O’Neal.
In the playoffs, O’Neal is averaging 34.0 points at home and 23.6 points on the road. The discrepancy would be of greater concern if Bryant weren’t so up for the challenge of the road. It’s one other department in which Bryant can handle whatever chores Shaq leaves unfinished. Kobe is averaging 28.2 points at home and 35.8 on the road. For their careers, Bryant’s six highest-scoring games have all come on the road, while O’Neal’s have all come at home. “Your fans are rooting for everything you do, you’re sleeping in your bed, riding in your car,” O’Neal said. “On the road, you sleep in a [messed] up bed. The hotel food’s whack.
“I’m just better at the crib. I know I’m better at the crib.
“There are certain arenas I dominate in. Certain arenas I can’t do nothing in.”
But if there’s anything the Laker superstars have learned this season, it’s that less can be more. Shaq didn’t have to dominate and the Lakers still cruised.
“This last series, I thought it was going to be harder on my body,” O’Neal said. “It was the easiest series for me. Everybody else played great. It was a blast to get the ball in the post and then when the double came, kick it out to D Fish [Derek Fisher] or B Shaw [Brian Shaw].”
The Laker offense always worked best through O’Neal because it resulted in either layups for Shaq or open jumpers for his teammates. Now Bryant is using his abilities to draw in the defense and set up his teammates for open shots when he isn’t skipping to the hoop himself.
“That’s actually what he’s supposed to do,” O’Neal said. “That’s actually what everybody wanted him to do, especially when you have the type of team we have. You know what he was doing? Working too hard.”
O’Neal has always demonstrated a willingness to share, whether it be his time or his considerable financial resources. When a pair of terminally ill Israeli kids visiting Staples Center this year somehow thought that they would get to meet O’Neal, Laker community service representatives worried about how to break the bad news to them--until O’Neal showed up before the game, posed for pictures, signed autographs and asked the kids to teach him some Hebrew.
Recently he bought a special wheelchair-accessible van for the family of Christopher McMillian, a 10-year-old boy who had to have his limbs amputated after catching a rare meningococcal disease.
And Shaq dishes out the credit as easily as he whips out the credit cards.
Lately he has been straining for new ways to describe his admiration for Bryant’s game. Before he used his words with economy. “He’s a great player” or “Kobe played a fabulous game” were all he had to say when Bryant played well. Now he simply proclaims Bryant to be his “idol.”
“Kobe’s just playing with this cool confidence,” O’Neal said, “like he’s not trying too much, like he’s letting the game come to him.”
Shaq’s team? Kobe’s team? Doesn’t matter. They are the Lakers.
“We all get all the credit,” O’Neal said. “Now [Kobe] understands. We’re having fun. We’re all having fun.”
J.A. Adande can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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