Don’t forget to bow to the man in the middle

Los Angeles Times

We take Goliath for granted. We say we don’t, but we do.

We chide him for his silly feuds. We make fun of his silly free throws. We roll our eyes at his silly nicknames.

He casts such a continuously large shadow, we eventually stop appreciating its strength or scope.

Then one day, impossible as it seems, the shadow grows. It stretches to the corners of the room, reaches to the edges of the imagination.

Suddenly we are chilled, and quickly we remember.

This is why Shaquille O’Neal came to the Los Angeles Lakers, and why he should never be allowed to leave.

The latest reminder occurred Sunday, when the Lakers took what could be the Sacramento Kings’ best punch and nonetheless flattened them because O’Neal was the one wearing the gloves.

Sometimes, Superman really is, well, Superman.

Without O’Neal, the Lakers scored 64 points and grabbed 30 rebounds and blocked three shots.

With him, they scored 108 points and grabbed 51 rebounds and blocked 10 shots.

Without him, they lose in the first game of the Western Confer ence semifinals by at least a dozen points.

With him, they won, 108-105, while driving a stake through the confidence of a young team that surely walked from the Staples Center court chanting two words.

What now?

While mumbling two other words.

Oh no.

“You can’t stop him,” a whipped Vlade Divac said of O’Neal. “He’s going to score every time down there.”

So much for mind games. The Kings must rely on other devices if they hope to extend this series into next week.

Maybe triple-team O’Neal like “airport security guards”? Or, perhaps, foul him like “semi-civilized rednecks.”

“They’re going to have to figure out something,” said Rick Fox.

As for the Lakers, every day the figuring gets a bit easier. First, the entire team grabs the handle in a sweep Portland. Then, O’Neal proves he can beat Sacramento pretty much by himself.

Not to mention, on Sunday morning they received the news that San Antonio—their probable opponent in the conference finals— may have lost guard Derek Anderson for the rest of the playoffs with a separated right shoulder.

What this means is as basic as an Alamo T-shirt.

If Anderson is not at full strength, the Spurs cannot beat the Lakers. If the Spurs cannot beat the Lakers, nobody will.

But, of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sunday was simply a day to appreciate somebody who you’d think would be much too large to forget.

“They will wear down quicker than I will wear down,” O’Neal said, and now we’re remembering that childlike smile.

“Teams can step up all they want, but I will also step up,” he said, and now we remember that confidence.

The day didn’t start like this, what with Kobe Bryant not taking his first shot for nearly five whole minutes and Shaq walking off with two fouls midway through the first quarter.

“We weren’t playing well. … I needed to make a point,” O’Neal said.

It is a point he has been trying to make throughout a stormy season in which he was criticized for letting his spat with Bryant affect his defense and energy.

Many in town simply wanted Shaq to hand the team’s reins to Kobe. He was encouraged to shut up and let the kid be the man.

O’Neal refused. He continually insisted that the team would win if the offense went through him. Phil Jackson continually agreed.

On Sunday, it surely became became unanimous.

O’Neal’s argument began, appropriately, not with one of his 44 points, but with one of his four assists.

In the final seconds of the first quarter, he took a long pass from Bryant and flipped it to Derek Fisher for a layup, the second time he has executed such a play this postseason.

The argument continued not with one of his 21 rebounds, but with two of his seven blocked shots.

At the start of the third quarter, the Lakers began a run with O’Neal’s consecutive rejections of Divac’s shots.

The argument ended not with O’Neal’s seemingly unstoppable offense, but his energetic defense.

Jason Williams is a trip with those purple shoes and psychedelic shots, but it was stunning to see even him attempt a layup against O’Neal in the final seconds when a three-pointer would have tied the score.

“He’s a sticky little player,” O’Neal said.

And that was one flytrap of a blocked shot that essentially ended things.

O’Neal trudged off the floor with an exhausted smile and sweat-darkened shirt.

“I’m not tired, I don’t get tired, bro’,” he said, smiling. “I get beat up.”

Which will probably account for why he didn’t stick around for the hockey game.

“No hockey, bro’,” he said. “I’m going home and getting into bed. Then I’m going to get up later tonight, play with the kids, get in the car, and drive down Sunset around 9 or 10.”

He grinned.

“About that time, Momma is going to call me on the phone, saying,’Where you at?'” Right here, right where he belongs, come to think of it.