O'Neal Critics Get Response on the Court

Times Staff Writer

All weekend he was trashed.

All weekend journalists from around the world questioned whether he was too old, too slow, too far on the downside of his career.

All weekend they questioned if he could still carry his team.

Shaquille O'Neal answered back Sunday night in the Palace of Auburn Hills, scoring 36 points and taking 20 rebounds when the Lakers needed him most.


Nobody could question him.

Nobody could doubt him.

“He could’ve had 60 tonight,” teammate Rick Fox said.

It wasn’t his fault that the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons, 88-80, in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the victory pushing the Pistons a giant step closer to their first title since 1990. They lead the series, three games to one.

O'Neal, 32, made 16 of 21 shots, evoking memories of his dominance of 2000, 2001 and 2002, when he led Laker romps to the title and was the most valuable player in the championship series each time.

He had the whole arsenal going -- spin moves, baseline jumpers, dunks, even a running bank shot as he spun across the lane.

By the end, he had become the first player in more than 40 years to score at least 30 points and take at least 20 rebounds in a playoff game against the Pistons. Bob Pettit had 36 points and 22 rebounds for the St. Louis Hawks on March 24, 1963.

The last player to record a 30-point, 20-rebound game in the playoffs was Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, who had 32 points and 20 rebounds against the New Jersey Nets last year in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

But it was all for nothing.

O'Neal’s monster game was a sidelight, almost an afterthought.

Nobody even said much about it afterward, when the game was dissected and most of the questions centered on the Lakers’ loosening grip on a dynasty.

O'Neal had wanted the ball. The Lakers gave it to him.

In registering season playoff-high totals for points and rebounds, he stitched together the ninth 30-20 playoff game of his career and his first since April 27, 2003, when he had 34 points and 23 rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It was only the ninth 20-20 game in the Finals in 21 years, the fifth by O'Neal.

But still the Lakers lost.

“Very upset,” O'Neal said afterward, asked about the Lakers’ mood. “You know, we let one slip away. We came out real aggressive and we had it, [but] in the fourth quarter we made some mistakes and the fouls went in their favor.

“They were able to, you know, win the game, and so the TNT slogan stands true on Tuesday: Win or go home, bottom line.”

Nobody came out more aggressively than O'Neal. He made all five of his shots in the first quarter, scored 10 points, took five rebounds.

At halftime, he had 17 points and 12 rebounds, nearly matching his playoff average for points and surpassing his average for rebounds.

Later, he was asked how much it worried him that the Lakers could lose a game in which he had summoned such a dominant performance. “It doesn’t worry me at all,” he said, “because I know that my teammates can play better.

“I know that we can all play better.”

Maybe not all of them.

Maybe not O'Neal.