- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

Mike Dunleavy has been influenced by Don Nelson.

You can tell by his response to Shaquille O'Neal in Game 1 of the Trail Blazers-Lakers series. He put O'Neal on the free throw line in the fourth quarter, which resulted in 25 free throw attempts by the NBA's MVP and howls of protest.

This was straight out of Nelson's playbook.

Nelson never has run with the coaching crowd. He always has been a little different, not afraid to attempt an unusual wrinkle. Nelson probably is the only coach with the audacity to encourage Manute Bol to shoot 3-pointers, as he did when they were together for two seasons at Golden State.

Nelson also has been notorious for exposing a team's grade-school free throw shooter. He pulled the maneuver on Olden Polynice this season. Polynice is so bad at the free throw line that he makes O'Neal look good in comparison.

After a succession of backboard-rattling bricks by Polynice, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan had no choice but to pull the center from the game.

The Zen master is familiar with this ploy from his days with the Bulls. Nelson employed it against Dennis Rodman.

Dunleavy spent one season as an assistant coach to Nelson in Milwaukee after playing for him there. He took good notes. The NBA is about matchups. It is about exploiting weaknesses.

You have an itty-bitty point guard. Your opponent is liable to stick your itty-bitty point guard in the post on defense. Allen Iverson, for instance, did not appear to enjoy himself going against Mark Jackson's butt-bumping tactics in the post during the Pacers-76ers series.

Other than the foul line, O'Neal has no genuine flaws in his game. He has a repertoire of shots in the post, excellent footwork and a ridiculous amount of athleticism for someone so large and strong.

But he is comical at the free throw line, one of the worst. Free throw shooting is his Achilles' heel, his one weakness. Sticking him on the free throw line is sometimes an opponent's only high-percentage recourse, especially late in the game.

What Dunleavy did was perfectly understandable, if not bold, considering he knew the reaction would not be favorable.

Really, though, what were Dunleavy and the Trail Blazers risking with 5:27 left? How were they hurting the game? They were trailing by 12 points when O'Neal started his procession to the free throw line.

It wasn't pretty, no. It wasn't the kind of basketball most fans want to see.

But the game wasn't all that pretty anyway. The Lakers were in control, and garbage time was the likely alternative in the final two or three minutes.

O'Neal missed six consecutive free throw attempts after hitting his first one, and the onus might have shifted to the Zen master and the Lakers if the Trail Blazers had not been in a funk on offense.

Would the Zen master had pulled O'Neal from the game if he had kept missing and the Trail Blazers had put together a scoring run?

O'Neal, of course, eventually righted himself, hitting seven consecutive free throw attempts at one point, and the Lakers concluded their business in convincing fashion.

Predictably, the Zen master expressed dismay with Dunleavy's decision, if only because living with O'Neal at the free throw line is dangerous.

How might the Zen master respond if Dunleavy elects to put O'Neal on the free throw line in the waning minutes of a five- or six-point game?

The Zen master averted that prospect in Game 2 as the Trail Blazers coasted to victory.

The criticism notwithstanding, Dunleavy said, "I'd do it again."

And he should.

There's something intriguing about it, too.

You can be certain the threat is tucked inside the head of the Zen master.

Maybe that is why he is trying to get inside Scottie Pippen's head. Maybe that is why he is playing head games with the Trail Blazers.

Perhaps the Zen master feels a need to counter a prospect that messes with the heads of all the Lakers: O'Neal at the free throw line, with the outcome of a playoff game at stake.

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