Shaquille O'Neal looked across the court at the Chicago Bulls, and, if he looked four or five inches down, he could even see the player who would defend him, Kurt Thomas.
Despite his stellar defensive reputation born from years of tough play, Thomas, Chicago's 38-year old, 6'9" power forward whose listed 230 pounds seem to severely under-exaggerate his latest layer, would have been nothing more than a nuisance to a young Shaq, or even a halfway-mobile Shaq. In my pregame notes, I wrote, "Look for a big game from the Big Diesel. Kurt Thomas? Carlos Boozer? Taj Gibson? Not nearly enough size."
But this isn't the same Shaq who went by the moniker "Shaq Attaq" and terrorized opponents; who exhibited a near-perfect blend of strength, height and agility; who tore down hoops like they were held up by cheap scotch tape. Heck, if statistics are a sufficient measurement, this isn't even the same Shaq who surprised observers with an impressive November.
During Shaq's nine November games, he averaged 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in 23.4 minutes per game. Since that torrid (relatively to expectations) start, Shaq's averages have plummeted. He played ten games in December, posting only 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per contest. Those averages have fallen even lower in January, with Shaq (through five games) scoring 7.4 points and notching 3.8 boards during 23.2 minutes per game.
At first, I thought Shaq's decreased production could be attributed solely to one factor -- Rajon Rondo's absence. It doesn't take Gregg Popovich or Jerry Sloan to see how well the Shaq-Rondo tandem works together. Rondo drives to the hoop, Shaq finds open space, Rondo passes to Shaq, Shaq makes easy layup. So when Rondo injured himself, Shaq's droopy numbers seemed only natural.
Except, umm, Rondo made his return. And Shaq still isn't producing like he did in November.
Maybe Shaq needs Kevin Garnett, too. KG takes pressure off Shaq, and draws multiple defenders. Shaq can't possibly find the game so simple with his All-Star power forward teammate on the shelf. The two players have spoken in the past about making life easier for each other, and Shaq's shrinking numbers during KG's injury align with their previous comments.
Except, umm, how do you explain Shaq's dwindling rebound totals? Shouldn't KG's absence increase the amount of rebounds available, which should mean Shaq grabs more boards? Instead of half the rebounds he grabbed in November? Instead of the combined three rebounds Shaq grabbed during 51 minutes of consecutive games against the Spurs and Timberwolves?
Maybe Shaq's injury still bothers him. We never really found out why Shaq missed three games in mid-December. The Celtics termed his injury a "sore calf," but we never learned the extent of the soreness, nor (tell me if I'm mistaken) did we learn the cause. One thing we do know is this: in eleven games since returning from his "sore calf," Shaq's highest scoring output is 13 points -- in other words, Shaq's scoring average for the entire month of November.
In nineteen minutes and thirty seconds of playing time against Chicago, Shaq only mustered five points and four rebounds. I chided myself for predicting Shaq would take advantage of a mismatch, when his days of go-to scoring are the same as Drake's third official mixtape. In other words, those days are "So Far Gone."
One low-post move against Chicago typified The Green Mile's inability to score with his back to the basket. He began the move by backing down a defender. I'm not sure exactly who the defender was, but it shouldn't matter -- whoever it was, the top of his head aligned somewhere in the vicinity of Shaq's chin. Nobody on Chicago could contend with Shaq's pure girth or height, but that doesn't mean Shaq maintains the ability to capitalize against far shorter, physically weaker opponents.
Shaq took a couple dribbles, forcing his defender closer to the hoop. He turned over his left shoulder to bank home a layup, which in his prime likely would have become a thunderous dunk. But as Shaq's shooting motion began, he leaned too far forward. All balance lost, Shaq's simple layup bounded off the backboard and clanged off the rim. Yikes.
The simple lesson was this: Shaq's not a go-to scorer, not anymore, not even when he can see straight over the tops of his defenders' heads. He can still make his presence felt, but his points will come in the offensive scheme, rather than as a result of mismatches down low.
For this new, old Shaq, there are very few legitimate mismatches. There are only some good games, and other not-so-good ones.