- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The NBA season has come down to this: Shaquille O'Neal at the free throw line.

O'Neal's shaky free throw shooting is the only thing that could prevent the Lakers from claiming the NBA championship in June.

O'Neal has his good and bad days at the free throw line. He started the season barely making one out of every three free throw attempts. Now he is up to 51.4 percent for the season.

Otherwise, O'Neal is having an MVP season. He leads the NBA in scoring at 29.0 points a game. He is No. 2 in rebounding at 14.1 and No. 3 in blocked shots at 3.1.

He has learned to pass out of the double-team defense, which is why he is averaging a career-best 3.8 assists a game. He also has expanded his shot-making ability around the basket. Opponents now have to respect his jump hook and turnaround jump shot.

O'Neal no longer is a one-note dunker with only a limited interest in playing defense. He is as complete as 7-footers come, except at the free throw line.

It's not easy to overlook someone as large and dominant as O'Neal, but he has been usurped by Vince Carter this season. Carter is the NBA's new flavor of the moment, the latest heir apparent to Michael Jordan.

As exciting as Carter is, O'Neal is doing the most serious lifting in the NBA today. Of course, he has the body for it.

Yet as long as the hack-a-Shaq option remains viable, opponents will employ it, especially in the playoffs.

The Lakers have no other exploitable weaknesses. O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are learning to coexist, discovering that one basketball is plenty for both of them. Bryant is making fewer boneheaded jaunts to the basket and curtailing his no-look passes to O'Neal that used to end up out of bounds.

If anything, they need each other. Bryant is a creative one-on-one artist who breaks down defenses with the dribble. When he attracts help defense, either O'Neal is positioned for the dump pass or Glen Rice is on the wing for the kick-out pass.

The mix is perfect, the best there is in the NBA. You have a finisher, slasher and shooter. No other team has this sort of blend, and the Lakers, at 56-12, are destined to finish with the best record in the NBA and have homecourt advantage through the playoffs.

No team has as much margin for error as the Lakers do. The Trail Blazers? No way. The Jazz and Pacers? Please.

This is assuming O'Neal can make a respectable number of his free throw attempts. If he is able to be in the 60-percent range, the NBA playoffs largely will be unremarkable. O'Neal will get his first championship ring, the Zen master will receive his customary plaudits and there will be talk of the Lakers establishing a dynasty.

O'Neal is 28, Bryant 21 and Rice 32. There's no reason the Lakers can't make a habit of June, so long as Jerry West can ignore his compulsion to fix something that is not broken.

It's not the personnel. It's the free throw line.

O'Neal is a career 51.6 percent free throw shooter in the playoffs. That is one out of two, and if you're the opposition, that is a pretty good trade when you consider the alternative.

O'Neal also is leading the NBA in field goal percentage this season, and the two-for-one trade is what ultimately could spoil what has been a mostly turbulent-free ride for the Lakers.

The Lakers are only as fragile as O'Neal's aim at the free throw line. If he becomes a liability in the last four minutes of a tight game in the postseason, more responsibility will shift to Bryant.

At this stage of his development, Bryant is a wonderful No. 2 man. The moment he is entrusted with being the No. 1 man, however, his IQ has the potential to plummet appreciably.

You can talk this or that team, this or that player, or whether Larry Brown and Allen Iverson can last another season together, but O'Neal at the free throw line is what the rest of the NBA season is about.

If O'Neal can increase his free throw shooting by about 10 percentage points in the playoffs, there won't be much to discuss, except possibly how Zen relates to free throw shooting.

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