Gutsy effort by O’Neal

Bill Plaschke,Los Angeles Times

They leaped, he winced. They flew, he limped. With the weight of the coach on his mind, the weight of the Los Angeles Lakers on his neck, and two bad wheels underneath him, Shaquille O’Neal faced his most burdensome playoff game in three seasons Friday.

While the Lakers soared to a 99-89 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, their center struggled just to stand.

But stand, he did.

It was prettier than any dunk, more dramatic than any alley-oop, a message of strength from the Laker with the least.

Fifteen rebounds on two bad feet. Twenty-two points with a bad finger. Three assists from a guy accused of not giving enough.

A pained, tight-lipped championship pose.

“Shaquille hung in there tonight like I’ve never seen him before,” said Derek Fisher after the Lakers took a two-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference semifinals. “I don’t think he’s had this many things going on at the same time. He gave us more effort than I’ve seen in a long time.”

And then he gave us fewer explanations, leaving the Alamodome without talking to reporters, walking gingerly but forcefully through a horde of cameras toward the team bus. We’ll have to wait to find out whether Coach Phil Jackson’s pointed criticism earlier this week affected him.

We don’t yet know whether his zero points in the fourth quarter — after scoring 10 consecutive points in the third quarter — was due to pain or defense.

There are still many questions surrounding the man through whom a third consecutive Lakers’ championship must pass.

But Friday, at least long enough for his team to regain home-court advantage in a series as bruising as expected, O’Neal did offer one declaration.

“When things like this happen, he responds,” Rick Fox said. “He becomes introverted very quickly, as (reporters have) found out. He becomes upset. He feels challenged. And when he feels challenged … “

Make no mistake, this was a challenge.

First there were the injuries, then, on Wednesday afternoon after Shaq had failed to dominate in the Lakers’ Game 2 loss, there was an insult.

“I had a heated conversation with Shaq, actually, about getting actively involved in chasing the ball down,” Jackson said after that Wednesday practice. “Shaq is, you know, I wanted to stimulate him and I wanted to motivate him to the fact we need him to play at a really active level.”

A heated conversation? Superman needing stimulation?

A day later, O’Neal responded by telling the Associated Press, “Ask Phil. He knows everything.”

On Friday before the game, Jackson expounded upon his remarks, saying, “It was taken out of context. A heated conversation? It was give-and take, that’s what it was. It’s just to motivate guys.”

He continued, “I think (O’Neal) was upset that I could question that particular aspect. That’s all right.”

In other words, Jackson knew O’Neal was mad, and maybe that was the point.

“Shaq needs to hear that from time to time,” Brian Shaw said. “And Phil’s really the only guy bold enough to do it.”

Bold enough, and smart enough.

The last time O’Neal was this mad at his coach, it was in mid-November, after O’Neal’s unexcused absence from practice following the birth of his daughter.

Jackson fined him, O’Neal was furious, and guess what happened.

In his first game after venting to reporters, O’Neal scored 30 points with 13 rebounds against Houston. The next night against Phoenix, he scored 28 points with 12 rebounds.

Then came Friday, which was not without its own calamities.

At one point, O’Neal caught a ball and fell out of bounds. He dropped passes. He was beaten on an alley-oop over his head.

During one timeout, he was scolded by Jackson, but did not want to listen, waving him off twice and turning his back.

He was seemingly so tired after one turnover in the third quarter, he walked slowly up the court, so slowly that he was still not yet at half court when Tim Duncan missed a jump shot.

Thus, he was able to take a pass and score on a fastbreak while being flagrantly fouled by Malik Rose.

It was seemingly the inspiration he needed.

He scored on consecutive jumpers, then, one possession later, on a dunk, all part of those 10 consecutive points.

“Shaq is not at a level that we’re used to seeing,” Fox said. “But it’s going to be like this the rest of the way.”

An awkward, bumpy trip that, for one day anyway, was navigated by following the limping giant.