Shaq Simply Can't Handle Howard
It's hard not to like Shaquille O'Neal, the most compelling NBA player of his era and arguably the best center in history. His love of the spotlight, his often-outrageous, sometimes-egotistical, always-entertaining behavior made him a must-see attraction since he entered the league with Orlando a long, long time ago.
It's why there will be some sadness in seeing him get destroyed on his former home court Wednesday night by Dwight Howard.
O'Neal's belief -- and insistence -- that he won't need any double-team help to manage Howard around the basket when his Cavs play Howard and the Magic on national television Wednesday, is a fantasy.
If Shaq could turn back the clock 10 years, even five years, it would be a matchup of Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell proportions, a true battle of the titans, a dream date for basketball fans.
Instead, this one could turn into a nightmare.
It's good for Shaq that the Cavs haven't played since Friday night, and the Magic were in Charlotte Tuesday playing the Bobcats, but no amount of rest will negate the 14-year advantage Howard has.
At age 23, Howard could play a double-header on the same day and still have more spring in his step and agility on the court than Shaq today. That's not to minimize the great career of O'Neal, but it's a fact of life.
This is a young man's game. And no one really likes seeing a once-great player struggle in his twilight years. Howard-Shaq might be a bigger mismatch than when the Cavs got swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals.
"We're not going to double (Howard)," O'Neal bragged to a group of reporters in Cleveland earlier this week. "I'm sure they (Magic) are going to double (me). We've just got to play hard."
The Cavs decided to acquire O'Neal this summer after they were rudely upset by the Magic in the Eastern Conference final, desperate to strengthen their interior defense after Howard did as he pleased, providing a wake-up call to LeBron James. He needed some help.
Unfortunately, Shaq isn't the answer. O'Neal is the one who carried Penny Hardaway to the NBA Finals in 1995 with the Magic. He carried a young Kobe Bryant to three NBA titles earlier this decade with the Lakers. He enabled Dwyane Wade to win a championship in Miami in 2006.
LeBron will have to win his with someone else.
Shaq's return to Orlando, where he still makes his off-season home, will be scrutinized more than it ever has been since he left the Magic for LA in 1996. Last season when O'Neal played in Phoenix, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy criticized him for flopping against Howard. O'Neal responded by ripping Van Gundy.
The Shaq-Howard relationship, once respectful, has grown cold. O'Neal never liked Howard stealing his thunder in Orlando. Shaq didn't like Howard copying his Superman nickname, then making it more popular than it ever was with him.
Howard was smart enough to stay away from verbal exchange. Mostly, Shaq's resentment just puzzled him. After all, Howard is the first to admit that he is envious of O'Neal's four NBA titles. He wants one of his own, and if it comes this season, it will come by outplaying O'Neal.
"I've played against the best,'' O'Neal said. "He's pretty good, He's young, agile and accurate. But it's nothing I haven't seen before.''
Unfortunately for O'Neal, unless he gets some serious help, it won't be pretty Wednesday night.