He's old. He's laboring. He's not what he once was. He's foul-prone. He's not
Other than maybe the part about being foul-prone, the 76ers aren't buying any of it. All they know is, they're facing the Miami Heat tonight at 6 in the Wachovia Center, and, to the best of their knowledge, that is still very much Shaquille O'Neal right there in the middle.
And even if, deep down, some Sixers might think time is catching up with O'Neal, they'd never say it. It is a long-standing NBA truth that the top players have what Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan refers to as "good ears." Those players happily accept anything that can be used as a motivational force and are often able to transform it into exactly that.
The Sixers, whether they knew it, were treading lightly after practice Christmas Eve morning.
"He's shooting, what, 60 percent [actually 58.9] and he's still getting double-teamed," Andre Iguodala said. "He's still got it . . . He's just so intimidating down low; he just covers up a lot of space. It's Shaq, that's all you can say."
In his 16th season, the 7-1, 300-plus pounds O'Neal and power forward Udonis Haslem are the only Heat players to have started every game. O'Neal doesn't get as many shots as he once did, and he's more vulnerable than ever to personal fouls; he had five in yesterday's 96-82 loss to Cleveland, and was immediately pulled by coach Pat Riley; before that, O'Neal had fouled out of five straight games, one fewer than an NBA record that has stood since 1952. His season total of six is his highest in seven seasons; he fouled out of six games in 2000-01 with the Los Angeles Lakers and out of a career-worst eight as a rookie with the Orlando Magic in 1992-93.
But he still averages 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.
The Sixers' counter to Shaq is 6-11 center Samuel Dalembert, who entered training camp at a robust 274 pounds and slimmed down to 247. In the last four games, he has swept 19, 14, 14 and 14 rebounds, becoming the first Sixer to take at least 14 in four games in succession since, of all people, Shawn Bradley from March 25 to April 1, 1995. The last Sixer to do it in five straight games was Charles Barkley, Nov. 2 to 11, 1991.
"It doesn't matter how big you are, Shaq is just a beast when he puts that body on you, [uses] that strength," Dalembert said. "If I was going to wait to get as strong or as big as Shaq, I'll have retired two times already."
Still, Iguodala is hopeful that Dalembert can use his quickness and speed to some advantage.
"The main thing is to go at [O'Neal] early, throw the ball in to Sam a few times, get some dives from a guard, try to get him in foul trouble, try to make it a track race," Iguodala said. "Sam is one of the fastest big men in the league; [it would help if] he can make Shaq get up and down the court, try to tire him out."
More pragmatically, Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said, "We've got to move him." He meant making O'Neal act and react by swinging the ball from side to side in the hope of creating lanes to the basket by forcing the big man to try to help one side or the other.
"Memphis had two 7-footers, and we were able to drive, get a couple guys in foul trouble," Cheeks said. "You've got to move the big guys around. You can't get stagnant in your offense."
Cheeks views the combination of O'Neal and guard Dwyane Wade as having "the ability to score, the ability to stop people."
"When you have [those two], you're never out of it. They've been there before; they understand what it takes to get to that point," Cheeks said.
"I've seen Shaquille play, I know the type of player he is, the type of pride he has. I know Dwyane Wade. Whatever reports are out there, those guys are always ready to play."
Willie Green, who started the first 26 games before being sidelined Saturday night in Memphis by a strained groin, was classified as day-to-day after an MRI exam Monday showed some mild swelling, but no muscle tears . . . Lou Williams (sore right big toe) and Reggie Evans (sprained rotator cuff, right shoulder) did not practice; Maurice Cheeks, who bought a book for each player as a Christmas gift, gave the team yesterday off . . . The Sixers open their six-game Western swing Friday night in Sacramento. *