Can NBA opponents slow the Shaq attack?

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Let the professional basketball season begin.

Oh, sure, it's true that the NBA began playing its regular season early last November. But the only reason for those 82 games was to determine which two or three teams among the 29 wouldn't make the playoffs. No wonder few people have been paying attention, and those who did were yawning.

For all these somnolent months, the NBA has labored in the backwaters of sporting minds because the games are played, for the most part, with a kind of lackadaisical malfeasance. Now, however, with the beginning of the real games, aka the playoffs, the sport has grabbed the attention of the populace.

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These are when the good times roll, when intensity creates high drama, and when the players finally and enthusiastically display their remarkable skills.

It is when, glory be, the stars come out. The other day, for example, Utah's Karl Malone lit up Seattle with 50 mostly spectacular points, hit from all over the court from all kinds of angles. Malone has become just the fourth pro player to score more than 4,000 points - in playoff games alone. The others are Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry West.

True, some of the stars flickered. But they'll brighten the NBA universe again soon. Toronto's Vince Carter, the supposed next Jordan, was a laughable 3-for-20 against the Knicks. Philly's Allen Iverson, he of stunning talent, was abysmal in a game against Charlotte. But neither Carter nor Iverson fizzled for lack of effort. And, thus, it was, in its own way, exciting to watch.

For those who see half-empty glasses, the problem with these playoffs is that the Los Angeles Lakers are way, way better than every other team. And, for these gloomy folks, it's never as much fun to anticipate a coronation as it is to look forward to a competition.

But the glass-is-half-full crowd is riveted. It is fascinating to speculate on how the Lakers might be whipped. And there at least is a better chance of this happening than there is for snow in Key West.

All of which brings us to Laker superlative star Shaquille O'Neal. He is so dominant - led the league in scoring, scored 61 points in a game earlier this season, blitzed Sacramento for 46 the other night - that some are calling the playoffs the Shaqoffs.

He has meant everything to the Lakers, who have grossly underperformed in recent years. Incredibly, for a team like L.A. with all kinds of advantages, it has not won an NBA title since 1988. But the club's 67 regular season wins (and only 15 losses) this year are more than any of those 1980s Showtime teams anchored by Magic Johnson and Jabbar that won five championships.

But here is what this year's playoffs come down to: How much pushing, shoving, and bullying will officials let O'Neal get away with? At 7 ft., 1 in., 315 pounds, he spends his days and nights knocking wannabe defenders out of his way like gnats. Essentially, every time he starts crashing his way to the hoop, he is guilty of a foul. Essentially, every time he gets away with it.

Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman says officials "do not officiate the game the same for him, with all his strength, as they do for everybody else."

If the NBA executives should issue a directive that "fouls must be called fairly," then Shaq is going to be sitting on a folding chair with a towel over his head for most of the games. On the other hand, Shaq is the draw. Fans want to watch him, not watch him watching. So the NBA is not likely to pick this moment to stand up for fairness and equality.

Without Shaq - and even with the notable presence of Kobe Bryant - the Lakers become reasonably beatable.

A partial solution is for a team with the will to dedicate itself to preventing Shaq from getting his hands on the ball in the first place. This tactic has potential.

But, it also potentially frees up Bryant, who can be a one-man wrecking crew. And giving room to cagey veterans Glen Rice, A.C. Green, and Ron Harper can set the scoreboard to rapid-fire blinking.

So, we'll see. Maybe Shaq will abruptly decide he wants to switch to ballet. Or devote full time to rap, movies, and commercials. Or do research on Faulkner. Or just fall into a nonproductive funk.

Or maybe officials will start treating O'Neal like they do the other players.

Or maybe not.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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