Look, Up in the Sky! It's the Old Shaq!

By Mike Wise
Friday, June 16, 2006

MIAMI His five children used their Crayolas to make handmade signs leading from the bedroom to the bathroom, all with an encouraging message. Among them was this one from 6-year-old Shareef: "Dad, what's up with you? Are you guys going to win another game?"

It was not just family. Friends were so worried about Shaquille O'Neal's confidence they put inspirational quotes in his locker room cubicle here at American Airlines Arena, including this beauty from Nelson Mandela:

"Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?' "

"I liked that one; that was powerful," O'Neal said before the Miami Heat knotted the NBA Finals at two games apiece with a resounding 98-74 victory, the night O'Neal got rid of his old-man gait and reclaimed his power game.

Seventeen points, 13 rebounds. And that great intangible -- the fear of an opponent who dare not take a charge lest he be hurt.

The postgame humor also returned.

"You know, whenever my team doesn't do well, I take it upon myself -- I always say to myself, 'I could have done more,' " O'Neal said. "I am programmed to do more, no matter what. Win or lose, to do more, no matter what. That's because I am the son of Jor-El, Superman."

Asked his impression of Jerry Stackhouse's flagrant foul in the second half that sent him down hard and into the first row along the baseline, O'Neal said, "My impression was, my daughters tackle me harder when I come home.

"You know, I'm one of the last players of the old school, and you know, you just have to take a hard foul like that and keep on moving. It actually felt pretty good to get hit like that. Thank you, Jerry. Appreciate it."

All Shaq, all even.

Every possession the past week has been a referendum on Shaquille O'Neal's career, every game of these Finals another opportunity to forecast the demise of basketball's Goliath. "Shaq's lost it," you heard. "It's not the old Diesel," they said. "This one comes unleaded," we were told.

The 7-foot-1, 325-pound behemoth who once scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a Finals game was reduced to the third-best player in the series, a shadow of the old, dominant Shaq.

Some of it was O'Neal, unselfish to a fault as he passed out of Dallas's plethora of double teams. Some of it was the NBA, which has effectively legislated Shaq's power game out of the playoffs by enforcing their dislodgment rule. It cripples no other player's game as much as O'Neal's.

Whoever's fault, the big, bad bully of playoffs past was MIA.

Until Game 4, the night he and Dwyane Wade combined for 53. There were malicious dunks that shook the goal. Baby hooks in the lane. Pretty, over-the-shoulder assists to cutting teammates for layups. That no-look, Magic-like feed to James Posey midway through the fourth quarter that froze the Mavericks.

He moved with purpose and passion, and his teammates responded with the most complete performance of their postseason.

Of even larger consequence for the suddenly reeling Mavericks: O'Neal and Wade pushed Dirk Nowitzki off the stage. Once projected to be the best player in these Finals, Nowitzki has much work to do before Game 5 to recapture his confidence and shot.

Last night, Nowitzki had nothing. He was 2 of 9 from the field with four turnovers in the first half, and he missed all five of his second-half shots.

All the what-happened inquiries Shaq faced after an embarrassing two losses in Dallas now get outsourced to the Dallas star. That's the way these one-game referendums work.

In Game 2 of the series, O'Neal scored a measly five points, the lowest total he has scored in 13-plus seasons of leading a team to the playoffs. Shaq was thought to have lost it. No one thought to ask whether we lost Shaq.

Some of his most forceful moves have been stricken from the books like the 10-second rule, the illegal-defense call and the handcheck at the top of the key.

"I've had to adjust, that's all," he said, playing down the effect new rules have had on his production. "It's just a matter of becoming more of a finesse player."

That's being kind. Imagine if Michael Jordan at 34 years old could not get away with a little push against Bryon Russell to win a world championship. Imagine if Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake was ruled a traveling violation 14 years into his career, or Patrick Ewing being unable to take that hop, skip and a step-through as he traipsed around Madison Square Garden. What if Kareem was called for a straight arm every time he rose for a sky hook?

Never before in memory has a future Hall-of-Famer had a weapon in his arsenal taken away from him for the good of the game. Whether you think Shaq was a big monster who just picked on and dunked over the top of your favorite player is not the issue. Whether you believe he just happens to be the most awesome force the game has seen does not matter, either.

The issue is fairness, and at this stage of his brilliant career, it's unfair to expect any strong and skilled player to drastically alter their game.

That's why his friends and family have to convey to him he is still "powerful beyond measure." They have to remind Shaq, because the NBA won't anymore.

This series tilted toward Miami tonight, and it's going to stay that way. Dallas has the talent and the depth, but they don't have the desire of a 34-year-old man trying to prove he's not washed-up and ready for retirement.

"You know, he's back," Wade said. "I think he understands that this team needs him. We need his personality also. You know, when he's quiet, the team kind of gets quiet. But when he's alive, we're alive."

Shaq's back, which means one thing:

Dallas is done.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company