- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS — This is a bad time to encounter Shaquille O’Neal in his current mindset — especially for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With the Wolves just one game away from elimination in the Western Conference finals, O’Neal is playing a different type of basketball than the offense-first mentality that carried the Los Angles Lakers to three NBA championships in the last four years.

Instead, O’Neal is sacrificing his game so that other Lakers may thrive. He has made scoring secondary to doing the dirty work, as evidenced by the 19 points he scored on just 10 shots as the Lakers shrugged off the Wolves 92-85 Thursday night at Staples Center behind another dramatic courtroom-to-court performance (31 points, eight rebounds, four assists) by Kobe Bryant.

“I’m just trying to help my team win,” O’Neal said. “I’m trying to do the little things. We’ve got a lot of guys on this team that demand shots, so I really don’t get the 20, 25 shots that I used to. So I just try to do the other stuff.”

Still, the 7-foot-1, 350-pounder appears to be having just as much fun in this championship drive as he did when he was offensive option No.1. O’Neal grabbed 19 rebounds, blocked three shots and generally made things miserable around the basket for the T’Wolves in Game4.

After Thursday’s performance, O’Neal is averaging 17.5 rebounds in the series. And as a result of his rebounding, everything else is opening up on the court for him and his teammates.

Couple that with the fact that the Lakers are 12-0 in closeout games dating back to the 2000 playoffs and the Timberwolves are in big trouble.

“He may not be doing a lot of scoring like he usually does,” said Minnesota’s Ervin Johnson, one of a few big men to prove less than an annoyance to O’Neal in this series. “But he’s getting offensive rebounds, he’s getting defensive rebounds. He’s very active on both ends of the floor, and when you get a big guy like that doing that, that’s a plus for their team.”

O’Neal has pretty much come out and said that the Timberwolves are simply not equipped to play with him from a physical standpoint.

“I’m the NFL’s best NBA player,” he deadpanned. “They are going to get tired before I do. When I was born, the doctor dropped me on my head. I’m used to the roughness.”

With O’Neal leading the charge, the Lakers finished Game4 with a playoff-high 52 rebounds and beat the Wolves by 11 on the glass. And that number would have been greater had the Wolves not forced shots late in a mad rush to get back into a game in which they trailed by 15 in the third quarter.

O’Neal’s sacrifices have not gone unnoticed by his teammates. In recent games, according to forward Karl Malone, O’Neal has been telling his teammates not to worry about getting him the ball.

“He said, ‘I’m going to get every rebound,’” Malone said.

It doesn’t hurt that the players the T’Wolves are throwing at him — Johnson, former teammate Mark Madsen, Michael Olowokandi and Oliver Miller — are little more than statues offensively. With the T’Wolves’ multi-headed center posing no scoring threat, O’Neal has been able to roam near the basket and concentrate on his rebounding and help defense.

And now it seems as if the T’Wolves are lining up to make concession speeches.

“There’s no secret to Shaq, and there’s no answer either,” Madsen said. “One thing is clear: No man on this planet is going to guard Shaq. The only way to guard him is to put three men on him and you can only hope to slow him down. That’s the truth about it. This team knows it, the whole NBA knows it.”

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