The long-time scout also observes O'Neal and sees a player who can be effective, if only in spurts. "I don't think he can ever beat you by himself again," says the scout. "He will beat up your man, though. He's definitely hacking the s--- out of people."
Tom Withers, who has covered the Cavaliers all season for the Associated Press, sums it up best, however. "Some days Shaq looks 28," he says, "and others he looks 48."
And sometimes he can look both in the span of an hour. Take that Game 1 against the Celtics. In the first half alone O'Neal flubbed three easy post moves, unfurled a running hook so devoid of touch it more closely resembled a bullet on third-and-short, watched motionless while Boston forward Paul Pierce grabbed an offensive rebound and casually laid it back in a foot away from him, and, worst of all, caught an entry pass and prepared to jam the ball home only to smear it against the rim. (Shaq's honor was partially salvaged when a foul was called on the play.) He was, to both the trained and untrained eye, a disaster, like watching a woolly mammoth try to play center in the NBA.
Then, in the second half, O'Neal came to life. Trailing on the break, he caught a pass from James in the middle of the lane and soared—O.K., careered—in for a one-handed jam. Then he dropped in an up-and-under spinning baseline move on Kendrick Perkins that was startling in its grace. And, finally and most valuably, he stepped into the lane during the closing minutes as Celtics guard Rajon Rondo drove to the basket, laying upon the young man what can only be described as a sideways body slam. Dazed, Rondo missed his first free throw and, astute observes will note, has yet to come down the lane again with such gusto against Shaq.
Thus, how and when to deploy Shaq presents a vexing challenge for Brown. Offensively, O'Neal changes Cleveland's style of play, clogging James's driving lanes. He cannot run a pick-and-pop because he lacks a jumper and his slow feet don't make him any more dangerous on pick-and-rolls. The result: The team must feed him in the post, whereupon he starts backing down so methodically that it seems he should beep like a truck in reverse. What's more, one of his greatest skills, his ability to find the open man from the block, is now mitigated because teams no longer feel compelled to double-team him.
At the other end of the floor O'Neal's presence is just as restrictive. Opponents see Shaq and immediately morph into the Jazz circa 1995, running an endless succession of pick-and-rolls. Since O'Neal isn't quick enough to show, Cavs assistant coach and defensive guru Michael Malone asks him to at least provide what he calls a "late contest," running at the shooter after the fact.
The numbers don't help. Not just the familiar measurements—at week's end Shaq was scoring 10.6 points per game on only 49.3% shooting in the playoffs—but the advanced ones. For as long as he's been in the league, it was assumed O'Neal helped his team just by being on the floor. He created mismatches, got opponents in foul trouble, facilitated open shots. He mattered. This season, however, the Cavs were statistically better off without Shaq on offense (114.7 points per 100 possessions with O'Neal versus 108.7 without him) and defense (105.9 allowed with him, 105.6 without).
In fact, in the series against the Bulls (a 4--1 first-round win) and the Celtics, it was hard not to wonder if the Cavaliers wouldn't be better off keeping O'Neal encased behind that metaphorical glass until—or if—they face Howard. (At week's end the Magic had a 3--0 lead on the Hawks in the other Eastern semi.) But, as Malone points out, this might defeat the purpose: "Then he'd be coming into a potential Orlando series, and he'd still be trying to find his rhythm."
In the past O'Neal's rejoinder to any of the above critiques might have been: I just need more touches. This season, however, he has played the role of good solider, even though, as he says, "I could still average 20 if I needed to." Ferry says that beyond accepting his role, O'Neal has gone so far as to help define it. "He came in and, without us having to say anything, said, This is LeBron's team. I know I'm not going to get 30 shots a game anymore; I know where I am in my career, but I also understand how to win, and I can help with that." Malone was similarly impressed. "My feeling is that until you coach a player, you can't form an opinion," he says. "And this is no b.s. when I say that Shaq's been great. I don't know if it's because he's older or is on a one-year contract, but frankly I don't care."
Talk to Shaq about his new approach, and he credits a number of factors—including his respect for James—but one theme runs through his answers: legacy.