Dominant inside game nets O'Neal another MVP
By Wayne Drehs
PHILADELPHIA -- Seconds before Game 5 of the NBA Finals began Friday, the First Union Center scoreboard showed a video cartoon in which Shaquille O'Neal was the villain.
O'Neal's head was attached to a gargantuan-sized scruffy monster that was wreaking havoc on the streets of Philadelphia. Enter Allen Iverson, his head attached to the body of the old cartoon character "Underdog."
A slingshot here and a punch to the head there and O'Neal was stunned. Underdog had again saved the day.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, a 15-second cartoon is as close to reality as they ever came to shutting down O'Neal in these NBA playoffs.
And because of Shaq's dominating ways, the Lakers are again NBA champions and O'Neal is again NBA Finals MVP, becoming just the third player to repeat as finals MVP. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the others.
Say what you will about the flashiness and fluidity of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter or anybody else. But when it comes down to it, the dominant play of O'Neal, who averaged 33 points and 15.8 rebounds in the finals, is impossible to stop.
"I have two sons right now, and when it's all said and done for me, then I can show them how nasty I was," O'Neal said. "I could open up the book and say, 'There was a guy named Mike. There was a guy named Magic. There was a guy named Charles. And here's your daddy, a guy named Shaq.'"
To put O'Neal in that sort of company would not be hyperbole.
At 29, he is the most dominant player in the game today and has a pair of championship trophies to show for it.
In these finals, he was the go-to guy, the man the Lakers leaned on whenever Philadelphia started giving Los Angeles trouble. And every time, he delivered.
Whether it was against the league's Defensive Player of the Year, Dikembe Mutombo, or a combination of Matt Geiger, Todd MacCulloch and a host of pesky, double-teaming guards and forwards, O'Neal looked like a man who could all but score at will.
"This guy is as good as it gets," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "And I've never seen a better player in my life. I mean that."
The Sixers were often left helpless, as they'd double-team O'Neal in hopes of getting the ball out of his hands, only to watch the center zip a skip pass to an open guard who would bury a critical 3-pointer. In Game 2, O'Neal found Derek Fisher for the game-clincher. In Game 4, it was Brian Shaw at the receiving end of O'Neal's passes.
For the series, O'Neal had 26 assists -- 5.2 per game.
"He is probably the most dominant player in the game not only right now, but probably ever," Sixers guard Eric Snow said. "It may be hard to believe, but people don't give him enough credit for what he does. The more you play somebody in a series, the more you can appreciate what a guy like that can do. And let me tell you, I appreciate it now."
The finals MVP trophy brought a perfect end to a tumultuous season that saw O'Neal report to camp out of shape, feud with fellow Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, and get overlooked for the league's MVP award.
When the fight with Bryant went public in late January, the team was struggling and O'Neal became testy, refusing to speak with the media.
Nothing could have been further from the case during these finals, though, during which O'Neal used his interview sessions to run through his personal comedy routine.
That didn't change Friday, when O'Neal, doused in champagne, stood on the interview podium and proclaimed, "I'm drunk. Too much champagne."
As he walked down the hallways of the First Union Center after Friday's Lakers victory, O'Neal, followed by a sea of reporters, tore down a host of NBA Finals banners that were hanging from the ceiling.
The banners, far out of reach for any ordinary man, were in O'Neal's way. So he moved them, much like he moved Mutombo, Geiger and MacCulloch for most of this series. It was no different on Friday, as O'Neal tallied 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots to lead the Lakers in all three categories.
"He and Kobe have been going back and forth this postseason about who's the best player in the world, but to me, it starts with Shaq," Lakers forward Rick Fox said. "As he goes, we go. He came into this series so focused and so determined and it has showed. When he is motivated about something like that, it's refreshing for me to know we're on the same team."
O'Neal, who owned the paint throughout the series, tallying 24 dunks -- more than the Sixers, combined -- slammed home only three shots on Friday, instead displaying to more of a finesse game.
His combination of finger-roll layups and soft-touch jumpers rattled the Sixers, who could do little more than shrug in frustration after each Shaq basket.
"I've always been a reactionist. I always told my guys, 'Throw me the ball. Let me lead the way. They're not gonna double me, let me do the work. If they double me, I'll kick it out to you guys to hit the shots.'"
For the first time in the series Friday, a Sixers player finally stood up to O'Neal, as Matt Geiger got in the giant's face after he threw an elbow into the back of Dikembe Mutombo following a Geiger foul. At the time, the Sixers were only down by five.
O'Neal missed the ensuing two free throws, but the next time down the floor, he bullied his way through Mutombo for a three-point play. Two more Shaq free throws, an assist to Rick Fox and a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-like skyhook later and the Lakers had gone on a 16-6 run to all but claim the championship.
"I've played him in the regular season, but it's a different experience in the playoffs," Geiger said. "He really seems to play a lot more physical and with a lot more desire throughout the playoffs and that's what the great players do."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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