MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Shaquille O’Neal scooped up the racquetball, examined it in his massive hands and began to dribble it nimbly between his legs, never interrupting his conversation.
O’Neal has everything under control right now, whether it’s the Lakers’ playoff fate or the loose gym equipment at their downtown hotel workout center. There have been many times in this turbulent season when the Lakers appeared to be spiraling into oblivion, but their big man has been strong in the middle.
A day after getting 27 points and 18 rebounds and blocking four shots in a 97-88 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, O’Neal saw no reason the Lakers’ latest surge in a boom-and-bust season couldn’t extend for seven more victories—which would give O’Neal his fourth championship ring in five seasons.
“I would say we’re starting to peak right now,” O’Neal said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence and toughness on both ends of the court. Are we ready for another (NBA) finals? I haven’t even been thinking about it yet, but we’re close. I’ll be able to tell at the end of this round.”
The Timberwolves got a taste of vintage Shaq: dominating the paint, tossing aside panicked defenders like so many racquetballs, affecting every Minnesota shot within 8 feet of the basket—and even making nine of his 11 free throws despite his 38 percent shooting in the first two rounds of the postseason.
If O’Neal continues to exert his will as no other center of his generation can, this series could be over quickly. Many of the Timberwolves seemed exhausted from their second-round victory over Sacramento and a bit intimidated facing the three-time former champions on such a stage.
What’s more, offensive catalyst Sam Cassell sat out the final 13 1/2 minutes when his sore back tightened up. Cassell didn’t practice with the Timberwolves on Saturday, and though he expects to play in Game 2 Sunday night, he certainly will be limited.
“Let’s face the fact: (Game 2) is a must-win game for us,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. “It’s difficult to come back from 0-2 anyway, but even more so when you lose the first two at your place. … At some point, we’ll have to slow down Shaq. I didn’t think we were as aggressive on him as we needed to be.”
O’Neal and Kobe Bryant took turns this season as the Lakers’ primary option on offense—though neither superstar is happy when shunted to a secondary role. Bryant had 23 points in Game 1 despite a quiet first half, but the Timberwolves seemed more wary of Kobe’s penetration and shooting than Shaq’s post presence.
“(O’Neal) dominated the game with his presence,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He took his time, read the defense well and executed. … He still goofs off, but he’s very focused. I think he always rises to this kind of challenge.”
Minnesota rarely double-teamed O’Neal, which freed him for inside scoring and proficient passing. Except when they used zone defense, the Timberwolves’ approach to O’Neal resembled the tactics used by the Utah Jazz earlier in O’Neal’s career: Play one-on-one defense with a revolving cast of big men, foul whenever necessary and just hope for the best.
“Our guys aren’t backing off,” said Latrell Sprewell, who led Minnesota with 23 points. “We were right there with him, but Shaq is Shaq. He’s going to do some things that are tough to stop. We have to answer by doing better things on other parts of the court.”
While Bryant’s impending free agency has been a big topic of discussion, O’Neal’s contract also has attracted attention—including plenty from Shaq himself. He has two more years left on his deal, but O’Neal’s agents have talked to general manager Mitch Kupchak about an extension.
“They know where I stand,” O’Neal said.
Kevin Garnett accepted less than the maximum amount in his recent deal, but O’Neal expects to be fully compensated for his skills. No matter whether Bryant re-signs with the Lakers after opting out of his contract this summer, a maximum deal for O’Neal could make it difficult for Los Angeles to sign complementary players.
But that’s no problem, according to the Big GM. After all, O’Neal helped to persuade Karl Malone and Gary Payton to take relatively meager salary-cap exemption contracts to make this rambunctious run at a championship—a gamble that once appeared to be a huge failure for both veterans, but now seems brilliant.
“I can continue to get guys to come play with me for nothing,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been the one making the phone calls. I’ve been the GM of this team for the last two years, not Mitch.
“Everybody wants to play with the Diesel, because I make things easy. They double- and triple-team me, and I kick it out to you for a nice, easy, wide-open 3. Add years to your career.”