- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

You do not play Shaquille O'Neal straight up.

You do not have to be a Zen master to comprehend this.

You just have to accept the obvious.

O'Neal is a ridiculously large man, a 7-footer who weighs in the vicinity of 350 pounds, although he is listed at 315 pounds. He has no equal in the NBA in terms of size, strength and agility.

If you play O'Neal straight up, he backs you down to the basket and dunks on your head. You have no chance. It is that simple, except perhaps to Scott Skiles, who is new to this coaching stuff.

Skiles became the coach of the Suns 20 games into the season after Danny Ainge decided to spend more time with his family as an analyst with Turner Sports.

Skiles does not like the double-team defense. It shows weakness, and weakness goes against his personality. As a point guard, he was not the most gifted. He was a step slow, a couple of inches too short, but he was tough. He would stick his nose into an elbow to make a play.

But there is tough and there is stupid. Skiles and the Suns were stupid in Game 1 against the Lakers.

You have two options against O'Neal. You can double-team him and make him pass the ball to the perimeter. Or you can foul him and put him on the free throw line.

You encourage other members of the Lakers to beat you from the perimeter. You want Ron Harper shooting the ball. You want A.C. Green shooting the ball. You want Robert Horry, Brian Shaw and Rick Fox shooting the ball.

If they beat you with an assortment of 20-footers and 3-pointers, then you accept it. Not to be too fine with the point, but it is a lot harder to make a 20-footer than a dunk.

The Kings adopted this mindset in defeating the Lakers in the two games in Sacramento. Predictably, the Zen master whined to the media about the Kings employing a zone defense, and the referees responded with two illegal-defense calls early in Game 5. The Kings packed their bags after that.

Skiles rotated Luc Longley, Corie Blount, Cliff Robinson and Rodney Rogers on O'Neal in Game 1. Of the four, Rogers, who is only 6-7, was perhaps the most ludicrous choice. Nothing against Rogers but Skiles might as well have asked Kevin Johnson to take a turn on O'Neal.

"There's nothing you can do unless you foul him," Blount says.

That, too, is a worthy option.

O'Neal is reverting to his old bad habits at the free throw line, shooting only 47.5 percent in the playoffs. He is averaging 9.8 free throw attempts in six playoff games. He is not being fouled enough, although to hear him tell it, he is fouled every time he touches the ball, including in the layup line before the game.

Skiles needs to remind Longley and Blount, in particular, that they each have six fouls to use on O'Neal. Skiles also could solicit another six fouls from Oliver Miller, who, despite a colossal effort, has not eaten himself out of the NBA yet.

Here's the deal with O'Neal: You make him do the things that he really doesn't want to do. You make him pass out of the double-team. You stick him on the free throw line. You try to disrupt his rhythm.

O'Neal was the easy choice as the NBA's MVP this season, which begs an obvious question: What was Fred Hickman of CNN/SI thinking?

With Jason Kidd hurting and Tom Gugliotta sidelined with a knee injury, the Suns probably do not have the resources to pose a serious challenge to the Lakers. But as the Kings showed against the Lakers, the difference between being competitive and overmatched is sometimes slight.

The Suns can begin to be competitive by not going into the fetal position against O'Neal.

Kobe Bryant, as special as he is becoming, can't lead the Lakers by himself, Glen Rice is in a shooting slump and the rest of the Lakers are glorified role players who have a tendency to disappear, especially on the road.

It is left to Skiles to change his defensive tactics on O'Neal going into Game 2 tonight.

Look at the game film.

Burn some incense.

Commit to memory rule No. 1 when playing the Lakers: You cannot invite O'Neal to dunk on your team's head.

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