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These playoffs unofficially mark the beginning of Shaquille O'Neal's long farewell. At 34 he is showing unmistakable signs of decline, and the league isn't making things easier for him. Hand-checking rules instituted two years ago to liberate perimeter players and the newly rigorous policing of his post moves have forced Shaq to work harder than ever for his numbers. The result: a relatively pedestrian 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game through Sunday, when O'Neal's Heat took a 3-1 lead over the New Jersey Nets in their second-round series. "They say two things: either that '[Nets center] Jason Collins stopped him' or ' Shaq's getting f-----' old,'" says O'Neal. "And [they're] right: I am getting older." � The Diesel has never been more vulnerable on a basketball court. Nor, however, has he ever been more resourceful, more unpredictable, more interesting, more human. No longer the one-dimensional dunker of his youth, O'Neal has worked diligently to find new ways to dominate as he once did so easily. "He's the best passing center from the low post that I've ever been around," says Miami coach Pat Riley. "Kareem was great, but Shaq is a pinpoint passer, and we run a lot of our plays through him as a point center."
It is both fascinating and sometimes hilarious to see the largest, oldest starting center in the playoffs shock his opponents as Shaq did on the crucial play of last Friday's Game 3, when he ventured out past the three-point line to strip a thoroughly surprised Vince Carter off the dribble. Not only did Shaq--who is famously poor at defending the pick-and-roll--dive on the loose ball during Miami's decisive 13-2 fourth-quarter run, he then added a dash of slapstick when he elbowed Carter off his back with the nonchalance of a horse swatting away a fly with his tail. "He dove on my head, and I hit my teeth on the ground," explains O'Neal. "It was just one of my police reactions to get that criminal off me."
Shaq's career arc is not unlike that of Jimmy Connors, Jack Nicklaus or Nolan Ryan, all of whom were disliked early in their careers for their effortless domination, but beloved at the end when their performances became more uneven. Far more endearing (and easier to relate to) than O'Neal's 30-point, 20-rebound masterpiece in Game 6 of the opening round against the Bulls, for example, was his eight-point, four-board effort a week earlier. "There's never going to be another guy like me," he says.
Indeed, the league seems to be in a hurry to mitigate Shaq's physical advantages. Zone defenses permit Collins, Nenad Krstic and even Jason Kidd to swarm O'Neal before he gets the ball, and throughout the playoffs he has been in foul trouble for misdemeanors that once went unwhistled. In his prime Shaq regularly went crashing into the lane like a 340-pound bowling ball, opponents flying off him like candlepins. With those same defenders now being rewarded for flopping, Shaq looks tentative at times, as if he's playing Nerfoop in a living room crowded with fine china. "They weren't calling nothing when I was purposely 'bowing [Dikembe] Mutombo in his face," says Shaq wistfully, referring to the tactics he used against the tight D of the 76ers' center during the Lakers' 2001 Finals victory. "Phil [Jackson] said, 'If he's going to play like that, put your f-----' elbow right in his face.' And they didn't call it." Oh, those were the days.
O'Neal insists that the league is making a big mistake by tilting the game in favor of the Lilliputians. "The game is going to be boring," he says. "They're going to have a bunch of Dirk Nowitzkis shooting threes."
But that won't be Shaq's problem. He's already plotting his next life. "I won't be commentating, sitting around criticizing players," he says. "You'll hear from me in a different realm. You'll be saying, 'Sheriff Shaq arrested another child molester' or 'Dr. Shaq has opened an office....'"
Hold on. Doctor Shaq? "I'm working on my doctorate starting in June," he says. "Psychology, with an emphasis on criminal justice." Dr. Phil, meet Dr. Shaq--and watch out for those elbows.