Let's be honest: First, that uniform is not flattering on Shaquille O'Neal. Second, he was a major player in Thursday's victory for the Cavs.
Cavs GM Danny Ferry is smiling Thursday night, this I guarantee. And it's not just Cleveland's 93-87 win over the Lakers Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena that slapped the grin on his mug, either. No, it's because the man is all blissed out on Diesel fumes...
Okay, I apologize for that one. But a month-ish ago, it looked a lot like fumes were all Shaquille O'Neal had left in his oversized tank, so you can hardly blame me for thinking such terms. Ferry brought O'Neal in last summer to have an impact in the paint against game-changing bigs like the pair L.A. trots out on a nightly basis, and this Cavaliers victory had his fingerprints all over it.
No, CSI-style dusting is not required to reveal Shaq wasn't the best player on the floor. LeBron James went for 37/5/9, adding two steals and a block over 40:24 of playing time, and was deadly in the second half, hitting big jumpers and finding his way to the cup at critical moments. By comparison, O'Neal played under thirty minutes, had 13 points, six boards, and three dimes, but he altered what the Lakers could do in exactly the ways Ferry hoped when the trade became official in late June.
He was involved in the action putting Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in foul trouble during the first half, and in at the 9:05 mark of the third with the Lakers up 53-46, O'Neal drew a critical fourth foul on Bynum. Over the next four-plus minutes, the Cavs ripped off a 14-6 run featuring two Shaq basquets deep in the post against Gasol and a steady diet of jumpers from the Lakers as their low post game evaporated along with their lead. Shaq's aqtivity left the Lakers with tough choices in the fourth. Play him straight up- a tough proposition even with O'Neal well past his prime (photo don't lie, the man is ample)- or bring a double.
L.A. tried both in the fourth, with little success.
At the 9:13 mark of the final quarter, O'Neal backed down Bynum for a bucket. He did it again a couple minutes later, helping set up a Delonte West triple in between by drawing a crowd underneath. With 5:24 to play and the game tied at 80, James and Shaq played a great two-man game, posting and re-posting until Ron Artest was forced to shade down on O'Neal. He kicked it back to LeBron, who buried a critical three.
Shaq has now had two successful games in two tries against the Lakers (and one against Dwight Howard, for those keeping score). He doesn't have to be dominant on this Cleveland team to make a difference against the teams Cavs brought him in to play, just change how those teams approach games with the Cavs.
When Andy and I taped the newest PodKast Wednesday afternoon, I agreed it would be easy to overstate the importance of tonight's game for the Lakers, even if Cleveland won. Remember, the Lakers lost to Orlando twice last year and we know how that book ended. That doesn't mean Thursday night's result isn't significant. I also said if the Cavs beat the Lakers again, particularly with O'Neal playing a big role and Artest having another quiet game against James- he did- it would matter, if for no other reason than the Cavs now have every reason to believe they can beat the Lakers, and sewed a tiebreaker should the teams tie for the NBA's best record.
No small issue for a team so strong on its home floor.
But beyond James and O'Neal, perhaps the biggest adjustments the Lakers will need to make against the Cavs in the Finals, should both teams get that far, will need to come on offense. After a 27 point first quarter, the Lakers were held to 60 points over the final three. They didn't exactly light it up on Christmas Day, either.
One common thread is Kobe Bryant. Tonight he started fast, hitting seven of his first 10 shots, reaching 16 points by the 8:57 mark of the second quarter. From there, he was 5-21, finishing with 31 points on 31 attempts. In the first meeting, Kobe had 35 points on 32 tries. The Cavs are simply too good defensively for one player to have such a large share of the offense with that sort of inefficiency.
They have to find ways to get more balance. I'm willing to bet the same would apply against a healthy Celtics team.
Some of that means other guys have to step up (Gasol, for example, who was pretty brutal Thursday night), a lot of it is Kobe being more judicious in his shot selection and the Lakers as a team working harder to exploit mismatches as they appear.
The Lakers will likely say it's just one game, and they know should they meet Cleveland again in the spring, the results will be different. Of course, given how the regular season games went, is there another answer available?