O'Neal's political incorrectness earned him a few reprimands and probably doomed his chances of being invited to the next NOW convention, but the brushfire was quickly extinguished, and it became apparent that O'Neal wasn't going to be distracted by any verbal jousting. After apologizing for his comments the next day ("Sorry, women"), he spent several days showing just how carefree he is off the court. He replaced the nameplate above his locker with one bearing the letters IDGAF, which stands for I Don't Give a...well, you can probably guess the rest. He even found humor in the slightly twisted left knee he suffered in last Friday's Game 3, telling a television reporter that he only winced because he knew it would get him a TV close-up. "It's all about HBM," O'Neal said, tapping his temple. "Home Boy Marketing."
" Shaq just lets the little boy inside him come out and play sometimes," says L.A. coach Del Harris. "The stuff with George was just Shaq playing with the media. He's having too much fun to let something like that get under his skin or affect his play."
GEOGRAPHY. The Sonics in effect divided the floor into sectors in defending against O'Neal. They tried to keep him from setting up on the left block. That's where they considered O'Neal most dangerous, capable of turning into the lane in a comfortable move for a right-hander or using a drop step to spin toward the baseline. They felt their chances were better if O'Neal got the ball on the right block, where he was less likely to want to turn to the middle, and they would try to force him to turn away from the basket and shoot jumpers or jump hooks. "If you can keep him out of the paint and make him shoot a little bit, you're accomplishing what you want," Perkins says. "And if he gets the ball in the paint around the rim, foul that sucker."
But O'Neal and his teammates had been working on some geography lessons of their own. When O'Neal was double-teamed, the Lakers made sure they had one of their perimeter players stationed near the three-point line on each side of the top of the key. " Shaq knows those are two places he can look when he gets doubled or tripled," says L.A. point guard Derek Fisher. "If he kicks the ball out to one of those spots, usually one more quick pass will get us a shot or a drive to the hoop." The strategy worked particularly well in the two games at The Forum. At one point in Game 3, a 119-103 victory, O'Neal was doubled. Almost without looking, he immediately passed the ball out to Jones, who was set up at one of the predetermined spots and sank a wide-open three-pointer.
But O'Neal understood that he had more than just those two passing options. "I know that if their four man [power forward] is doubling me, then my four man is going to be open," he says. "If they rotate to cover my four man, then Eddie or Rick [Fox] on the other side is going to be open. So I just have to make quick, smart decisions."
PHYSICAL EDUCATION. This will always be O'Neal's easiest course. Seattle's objective was to grind him down by using a committee of four—Kersey, Perkins, forward Vin Baker and center Jim McIlvaine—to lean on him and try to push him away from the basket. If all four players had pushed at once, they might have budged O'Neal. "I think he moves a little," Perkins said after Game 3, "but it's hard to tell. When you're pushing on something that big, a half step is a lot."
The Sonics' big men, particularly Kersey and Baker, also wanted to tire O'Neal by forcing him to run with them when Seattle went on the attack. But rather than wearing down, O'Neal proved more adept than his Sonics counterparts at getting up and down the floor. When Los Angeles shifted to offense, he often established position close to the basket by reaching his spot before the Seattle defense set up. "When the big fella beats people to the block, you can forget about it," says Horry. "All you can do is foul him." Sometimes O'Neal even foiled that previously fail-safe strategy. He made all six of his free throw attempts in the Lakers' 92-68 win in Game 2 and hit 9 of 12 in the Game 4 victory.
HISTORY. For O'Neal, this was extra-credit work, done on his own. He found his greatest incentive to modulate his game by looking back at his five years of playoff frustration. Harris compares him with Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman in the way that failures have driven him to work harder. "They were guys who failed enough times that success became a real value to them," Harris says. " Shaq has had the experience of sitting home and watching other people continue playing enough times that it has given him motivation to do what it takes to win a championship."
O'Neal would probably prefer to be compared with Puff Daddy than Give 'Em Hell Harry, but he agrees with Harris's assessment. " Michael Jordan told me once that you have to learn how to fail before you can learn to succeed," O'Neal says. "This is my sixth season. I think I've learned. I'm ready to succeed." He may be ready to take his place at the head of the class.