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Caller ID a Secret, but Shaq Leaves Calling Card

Maybe it has all been a fib. The arthritic big toe and the organ damage caused by the pills he takes to deal with it. The injury he suffered playing Spider-Man with the kids. The cut finger that sent him to the trainer’s room for what seemed like half of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, and the phone call he says he received from his father that caused him to head back out to the court. What’s truth and what’s fiction?

When it comes to Shaquille O’Neal, believe what you see for yourself. On Sunday what you saw was example No. 8,453 of why O’Neal is the biggest, baddest, most dominant force in basketball.

The toe that threatened to trip the Lakers’ season hasn’t been an issue lately. In these playoffs the Toe That Consumed L.A. has proven to be stronger than David Robinson’s back and Jamal Mashburn’s stomach.

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And when the Lakers needed O’Neal most--with Kobe Bryant hurting because of a bruised knee and shots clanging off the rim from all over the place--he was there, scoring 13 points in the final nine minutes as they finally caught and passed the San Antonio Spurs in this basketball equivalent of a low-speed chase.

He did it with four stitches in his left forearm from an accident he had Sunday morning. Laker Coach Phil Jackson said it was the result of “the gremlin in the kitchen.”

O’Neal said he saw the movie “Spider-Man” on Friday night and he was trying to imitate Peter Parker’s wall-crawling ways while climbing above the bathroom sink. O’Neal, who normally casts himself as Superman, slipped and cut himself on some glass.

“That’s what happens when you cross superheroes,” O’Neal said.

At least he got the whole saving-the-day part right later on.

First he cut his finger on the rim while blocking a Tim Duncan shot about three minutes into the third quarter. He went back into the trainer’s room, where doctors numbed his hand and gave him three stitches. He was there for the rest of the third quarter and wasn’t seen again until one minute into the fourth.

“I did not know what they were doing, whether they were amputating his finger or what was going on in the locker room,” Jackson said.

O’Neal said he got the impetus to return when his father called the phone line in the Lakers’ training room.

“He told me to get my [butt] back out there,” O’Neal said.

He said the same thing over and over again, to every reporter with a notepad and television microphone that came his way. At least he was consistent with his story, even if it didn’t quite check out.

I asked Laker trainer Gary Vitti if he heard the phone ring back there, and a quizzical look crossed his face. Then I explained Shaq’s story to him.

“Sounds good to me,” Vitti said.

O’Neal has been known to embellish a story, to toss the media an anecdote too good to pass up. Usually he means it all in fun, but there might have been an early Father’s Day tribute behind this tale. Even if Philip Harrison didn’t actually call, O’Neal surely could hear his voice telling him to get back, and he has had reason to appreciate everything Harrison did for him.

“My condolences go out to Tim Duncan, who just lost his father [last week],” O’Neal said. “I know how important it is for a father. Me and my father are real close.”

O’Neal talked briefly with Duncan before the game.

“I told him sorry,” O’Neal said. “I’m sure it’s hard for him. It just shows you what type of man his father was, [because] Tim Duncan has always been a class act. I was just telling him how well he was raised by good people.”

Maybe sympathy kept O’Neal from inflicting more damage on Duncan early on, but that all changed when he returned in the fourth quarter.

O’Neal missed his first couple of shots, then made a turnaround jumper. He took off after a missed shot, caught a Rick Fox pass ahead of the pack and threw down a two-handed dunk.

He grabbed offensive rebounds. He even made five of six free throws in the quarter.

“I said to my guys, ‘Just get me the ball and let me go for what I know,’” O’Neal said.

“Guys weren’t really hitting their shots that well. I just wanted to get it and take the high-percentage shots.”

And he was so fired up that he almost obliterated Mark Madsen with a chest-bump as he came to the bench for a Spur timeout after he made a basket.

“I’m glad I’m alive after that chest-bump,” said Madsen, who simply wanted to give O’Neal a high-five. “That was more than just a chest-bump. That was like me trying to stand in front of a locomotive going 35 miles an hour.”

O’Neal’s explanation of his hyperactivity was: “I had to do something else, because I couldn’t feel my finger. I just had to take my mind off playing with nine fingers.”

Madsen, having survived his brush with O’Neal, was filled with admiration.

“He had stitches on top of his finger, right where the ball sits, where he shoots it off of,” Madsen said. “He still wanted the ball inside, he was still making his free throws.

“There’s only one Shaq. That’s what makes him special. I don’t care if he could barely walk. He’d be out there, calling for the ball, making plays, involving his teammates.”

O’Neal finished with 23 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots. There has been a lot of talk about Duncan versus Jason Kidd for the NBA most-valuable-player award. You’d have a hard time convincing the Lakers that anybody could be more valuable than O’Neal was in the fourth quarter of this 86-80 victory.

“It was exactly what we needed at that point in the game,” guard Brian Shaw said. “We were playing real flat and sluggish, and he infused us with some energy when he came back in the arena.”

It was on his way out of the arena that O’Neal finally came close to ‘fessing up. When asked one more time if the training-room call really happened, he winked and smiled.

“Marketing, baby,” he said.

I knew that story was a little too good. In all honesty, so was Shaq.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.


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