Diesel-Powered Cavs Run Over Bulls
His first game back with the Cleveland Cavaliers since late February brought nothing but good returns.
Looking slimmer and fitter than he has at any point this season, O'Neal provided an immediate presence as the Cavs won Game 1 of their opening playoff series, 96-83 over Chicago.
"Shaq was terrific," guard Mo Williams said.
The highlight: A third quarter spin-and-dunk move on Joakim Noah that had Noah laying flat on his belly as O'Neal scored. On the play, O'Neal backed into Noah as Noah leaned into O'Neal. When O'Neal felt Noah start to lean again, he spun to his right.
O'Neal dunked, then sprinted downcourt with vigor.
"That's the "Diesel Truck With No Brakes,'" O'Neal said. "You see when I get into that move people get out of the way because they know I'm (going) and I don't have any brakes."
O'Neal's numbers -- 12 points, five rebounds -- weren't staggering, but that didn't matter to the guy who called himself "one of those unorthodox CEOs ... brought in as a consultant." O'Neal has accepted his role in support of LeBron James. What mattered was his presence.
"Noah is a valuable piece," Williams said, "and he has to go to sleep wondering what he has to do with Shaq on Monday."
Even in a secondary role, there is not an easy solution. O'Neal started the game by scoring seven first-quarter points, including a dunk and free throw that gave the Cavs an 11-8 lead that they never gave up. He followed that three-point play with a layup and spin-and-bank shot over Brad Miller.
In the third quarter, O'Neal rose up and stone-cold stopped Noah at his highest point as he went up to dunk. O'Neal fouled Noah, but the message was sent: No dunks in the halfcourt set on my watch. By game's end, Noah had five fouls and Miller four as the Bulls struggled to find a way to deal with O'Neal.
"What [can you] do when you are playing against an All-Star in Shaq, somebody who has been in this position many times and won a lot of championships," Noah said. "At the same time ... I didn't feel like some of those calls were fair."
When O'Neal was out with a torn ligament in his right thumb, much was made of the fact that the Cavs could play small, run and win. That was true in some cases, and will be true against some teams. But it also ignored the strengths O'Neal brings when he plays.
When James rested on Saturday, Cavs coach Mike Brown went to a lineup that included O'Neal, Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison on the front line -- with Zydrunas Ilgauskas getting minutes as well.
"That's something that we've been looking forward to all season," James said of the big lineup. "Seeing how the size we play with differs between last year in the postseason and this year."
In this game, the Cavs out-rebounded Chicago 50-38, with 13 coming on the offensive end. Lest anyone forget, Chicago led the NBA in rebounding in the regular season (44.6 per game).
"They cause a lot of problems," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "They keep coming at you."
There were other subplots. Miller and James got testy with each other following a James drive to the basket. James and Luol Deng spent a healthy amount of time talking to the officials as they left the court at halftime. Miller seemed none too pleased after taking two shots from O'Neal, the second to the jaw from O'Neal's elbow, and Varejao later had to play through a Noah hand in his face as the two fought for a rebound.
"That's basketball," said Bulls guard Derrick Rose.
The Cavs had to be buoyed by the play of Williams, who played so poorly (37.1 percent shooting) in the Eastern Conference finals last season. In this opener, Williams had 19 points and 10 assists -- an impressive double-double that his psyche no doubt needed.
His Chicago counterpart, Rose, had 28 points -- but those points came on 28 shots. The Bulls didn't mind Rose taking that amount of shots because he is their catalyst, but neither did the Cavs.
For the Cavs, this playoff opener was as much about the return of O'Neal as it was about anything else. His last time on the court was a Feb. 25 game in Boston when he hurt the thumb as Glen Davis blocked his shot.
O'Neal spent the next two months dedicated, he said, to "the mission" and returned fitter than he'd been all season. Williams relayed that in his first practice back, O'Neal was going so fast that Ilgauskas had to tell him it was just a practice. It begs the question whether those silly "Shaq Vs." shows in the offseason were really a good way to get in shape (Shaq swimming against Michael Phelps is going to help his conditioning?) but it also showed how O'Neal viewed these playoffs -- and this team's chances.
"This is very vital for me," O'Neal said. "Very vital for everybody. I wanted to come back extra, extra ready so I did some things I don't usually do. I just wanted to change up a little bit.
"This is the time we have to be ready and I just wanted to be ready."