Although he's no motivational speaker, O'Neal is more comfortable making himself heard than he once was. As a member of the Magic, he was asked if he planned to yell at his teammates to shake them out of a slump. "I don't yell," he said. "Maybe I'll just beat 'em up."
His leadership skills weren't as essential when veteran forward Horace Grant joined Orlando in 1994-95, allowing O'Neal to concentrate on points and rebounds. The Magic reached the Finals but was swept by the Houston Rockets. " Shaq has been here before and failed, and failure can teach you a lot," Fox said after Game 2. "It has taken him five years to get back to this point, and the whole playoffs so far have been a stage to show he can carry us in the big moments."
The show has developed almost exactly as Jackson envisioned it when O'Neal visited him in Montana for a get-acquainted session last summer. "I felt that none of the expectations for this team could be met unless Shaquille led us there," Jackson says. "From Day One, he rallied the guys about defense and rebounding and being responsible for how we approached our season."
But after their Game 3 defeat, it appeared the Lakers would have to change their approach to the series, because Bryant's absence hurt them in almost every area. Without him, O'Neal is their only reliable offensive option; the Pacers can swarm Shaq and gamble that L.A.'s perimeter players can't make enough shots to hurt them, a fairly safe bet. Shaw, who replaced Bryant in the lineup in Game 3, hit only 3 of 10 from the floor, and the three other starters, Rice, Harper and Green, were a combined 10 of 25. Free to concentrate on O'Neal, Indiana power forward Dale Davis made sure Shaq didn't get the "deep touches" he likes so much—a reference to the passes O'Neal catches in the lane, not to the acupuncture treatments he undergoes—and forced him to work harder for his points.
Having Bryant on the sideline also limited the Lakers' flexibility on defense. Bryant is what Scottie Pippen was on Jackson's Chicago Bulls teams: a defensive Swiss Army knife who can be used against a variety of players. When Miller, who missed 15 of his 16 shots in Game 1 and scored only two points in the fourth quarter of Game 2, got going in Game 3, Bryant would almost certainly have been assigned to try to slow him down. Without him, Jackson had no one who was up to the task.
The Lakers headed into Game 4 knowing that may be the case for the rest of the series, since Bryant says his injury most affects his ability to move laterally. It's not surprising that Miller was almost salivating. "It's time to see how they react when they're being attacked," he said on Sunday night, "instead of doing the attacking."
Suddenly a series that Los Angeles seemed to have well in hand had turned into a dangerous exercise. "This game had to do a lot for their confidence," Fox said of the Pacers. "We've got ourselves a little bit of a minefield to deal with now."
But by now the Lakers know exactly what to do when they find themselves in such peril: They follow their leader.