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Steve Aschburner

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If the Cavs want to make it back to the East finals, they need to get Shaquille O'Neal more involved.
Jim Rogash/NBAE via Getty Images

Cavs can't let foul trouble short circuit Shaq's big role


Posted May 10 2010 9:35AM

BOSTON -- The littlest man on the floor dominated Game 4 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics Sunday and has been the player demanding the most adjustments in their Eastern Conference semifinal series that continues Tuesday.

Maybe one of the biggest men in the league can do something like that before it's too late.

Time was, Shaquille O'Neal was the guy who warped every game in which he played, who was the focus of every opposing coach's game plan (and nightmare). Those days, at age 38, are past, but you couldn't help feeling that O'Neal still had more to give in Cleveland's 97-87 loss that evened this at 2-2.

Like, oh, an entire fourth quarter.

While Boston's point guard Rajon Rondo was putting up Wilt Chamberlain/Oscar Robertson numbers in shifting pressure in the series back on the Cavaliers, O'Neal -- the closest thing this generation has seen to the legendary Dipper -- was more Big Zero than Big O. Zero as in nothing over the final 11 minutes 11 seconds. The reason? O'Neal picked up his fifth foul going for the rebound of LeBron James' missed three-pointer and was promptly removed by coach Mike Brown. And in a decision that "surprised" James, the big fella did not return.

Neither, frankly, did the Cavaliers' chance of avoiding a trip back to Boston (Game 6 is Thursday). It was 76-72 when O'Neal sat down and 84-72 just 2 1/2 minutes later. J.J. Hickson, Shaq's replacement for the first 75 seconds of that stretch, was awkward and out of sync. Anderson Varejao, who took over from there, scored six points in the period but went rebound-less and certainly didn't put pressure on the Boston defense the way O'Neal had.

The Big Acquisition had just five rebounds himself on a night when Rondo was making all the big guys look silly -- Rondo's 18 boards were twice what James had and triple what anyone else grabbed. But O'Neal did score 17 points, block two shots and get to the foul line 11 times, same as James.

He also was responsible for a chunk of Boston's foul trouble -- six different Celtics picked up fouls against him, including Paul Pierce, who nearly went for a piggyback ride on his fourth. That came during a 16-7 stretch in the third quarter that got Cleveland from a 60-51 hole to a 67-67 tie; O'Neal scored six of the Cavs' first nine and reached out for an impressive block of Boston center Kendrick Perkins' jumper to keep the run going.

"Shaq played extremely well," James said. "I was kind of surprised not to see him back on the court the whole fourth quarter. They definitely turned it around after that. They were able to get some stops, get some run-outs. 'Big Baby' [Glen Davis] was able to get a few layups. Tony Allen was able to get a layup or two. They were able to go up 10 really fast."

Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "Getting him in foul trouble, that wasn't a bad thing for us. I wish we could orchestrate that, but we can't."

O'Neal? He didn't say anything for the record, though a bystander did hear him muttering as he exited the visitors' dressing room through a side door. The assumption was that O'Neal -- back for nine playoff games now after missing 23 to close the regular season, his strained thumb no longer a concern -- didn't appreciate having his performance ended 49 seconds beyond the third quarter.

Five fouls? OK. But if you never bring the player back to risk his sixth, what's the benefit of "disqualifying" him yourself with five? For the record, O'Neal had fouled out once in his previous 40 postseason games.

And this mattered because O'Neal was effective for much of the game. He made the most of his touches, hitting 5-of-9 and earning those 11 free throws. He is averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 boards in the series while costing the Cavs little defensively against Perkins, Davis or Rasheed Wallace. Factoring in the fouls that have kept him on the side, O'Neal on a 48-minute-basis has averaged the equivalent of 26.3 points and 11.8 rebounds.

"He's starting to really get into it," teammate Antawn Jamison said after O'Neal had vacated the adjoining stall. "The time off kind of affected him a little bit. Now he's starting to get comfortable, he's starting to be aggressive. He's starting to have his effect on the game. We knew it was going to take some time.

"Me and him got things going. Any time I see that 'big' [opposing defender] leaving him, I look for him. He's taking up so much space. He's really converting. We just have to do a better job of not keeping him stagnant. Or keeping him off that box a little bit and trying to make moves. Have him moving a little bit and get as close to that paint as possible."

Slower? More mechanical? Capable of being defended now compared to those days when O'Neal wreaked havoc on a nightly basis? Sure. But he still is formidable in spurts, something in the 15-and-10 range would be ideal and, c'mon, this is the time Cleveland GM Danny Ferry had in mind when he added the big man to the Cavs' championship pursuit.

"When he's 80 years old he's still going to be a presence," said Boston's Kevin Garnett, who battled O'Neal for a decade in the West. "He knows how to play, he's very smart. And he's probably the best at sealing when he gets in the middle ... he knows how to hold his position. So when you get a presence like that out of the game, you have to take advantage of it."

Actually, it was Orlando and Dwight Howard that Ferry, when he traded for O'Neal, had in mind after last spring's elimination from the conference finals. But unless Shaq contributes now -- and gets the minutes he needs to do so -- Cleveland might not make it to the Magic.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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