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O’Neal’s ‘Counts’ Are Now Payable

He sat out the first dozen games of the season because of intentionally delayed toe surgery, causing irritated teammates to begin their journey with a limp.

Fear not, Shaquille O’Neal said. I will be there when it counts.

He lumbered through the winter with a dominance downgraded from thunderstorms to showers, intermittent and uneventful. Thirty-nine points one game, 13 points the next. Soaring one moment, slow motion the next.

Fear not, Shaquille O’Neal said. I will be there when it counts.

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The Lakers do not have home-court advantage in the playoffs because O’Neal’s early absence dug them a hole. Robert Horry is exhausted because O’Neal’s early absence forced him to the floor. The Laker triangle has struggled to find its parameters because O’Neal has never been quite a straight line.

Much of this season having been framed by O’Neal, it figures that he must ultimately define it.

Tonight, he can.

Tonight, when it counts, the Lakers playing host to the San Antonio Spurs while saddled with a three-games-to-two deficit in the Western Conference semifinals.

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Tonight, the extension of a season relying on the keeping of a promise.

“We fully expect him to dominate tonight’s game,” said Derek Fisher. “We don’t win without him.”

The Lakers should expect it. This is who O’Neal is. This is what he does.

They are undefeated in four elimination games in the Phil Jackson era, and O’Neal is the reason why.

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The bigger the game, the broader his shoulders, the louder his urge. He screams for the ball. He knocks men to the floor. He is unstoppable around the basket. He is unimaginable from the foul line.

In the first elimination game of the era, late in the third quarter, he had more rebounds than the Sacramento Kings combined.

In the second elimination game later that 2000 postseason against Portland, he raced downcourt and caught the alley-oop pass from Kobe Bryant. Shaking his giant body all the way back to the bench, he created the signature moment for a dynasty.

Then there were the back-to-backs-against-the-wall elimination games last spring against the Kings. O’Neal owned them both.

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In the first, he scored 41 points with 17 rebounds and shouted to his teammates, “Come to me!”

In the second, he scored four of the final eight points in an overtime, Game 7 victory that essentially clinched the NBA title.

When O’Neal calls himself the most dominant center ever, this is what he means.

Which made it awfully unsettling Tuesday night to watch him dominate the bench.

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Yes, that was O’Neal sitting down for the first 5:39 of a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback that ended one rattle short in a 96-94 loss to the Spurs.

And, yes, that was Coach Phil Jackson calmly answering questions about O’Neal’s absence with a hit nearly as stunning as Robert Horry’s miss.

“We could not have come back in this game if Shaq was on the floor,” Jackson said Tuesday night, and he elaborated without prompting.

“We needed an active defense, and Shaq was not very active tonight. There were times he wasn’t getting back on defense. He played in moments. It looked like he did not give a consistent effort.”

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Played in moments? Not a consistent effort?

From a guy who said he would be here?

O’Neal, who had six rebounds and five turnovers after three quarters, was evasive in his immediate response to the charges.

“I’m all right,” he said.

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Kobe Bryant later said that he thought O’Neal’s tricky left knee was bothering him. On Tuesday, the Lakers confirmed that he indeed had a sore left knee.

But O’Neal did not come to the Lakers’ training facility for treatment on what was a day off for the players, so the extent of the injury was uncertain.

Nobody knows. And nobody was talking.

Jackson was mourning the death of friend and former teammate Dave DeBusschere and was not answering questions.

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O’Neal, of course, was not around to answer questions.

And Fisher, the Lakers’ designated spokesman this day, could talk only about the past.

“When [Shaq] comes off a performance like last night, often times he’s able to make whatever adjustments he needs to make psychologically to get through the pain and to get through whatever he’s dealing with and be there for us,” Fisher said.

Those adjustments need to be more than psychological.

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Knowing that the referees seem to favor the defending champions during elimination games -- if you want their throne, you better knock them out -- O’Neal needs to do more body work, more plowing, more bulling.

The high-post stuff is nice and gets everyone involved, but the Lakers have traditionally won crunch-time games when O’Neal crunches people.

He needs to sit on Spurs, not the bench. He needs to shout for the ball again. He needs to sweat puddles again.

If all else fails, Shaquille O’Neal needs to forget about his knee and remember his toe.

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He needs to think back to last fall, the decisions he made, the risks he took, the promises he made, the burden he must bear.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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