NEW YORK -- Shaquille O'Neal didn't play Wednesday night, but there was no need for him to do that. The majority of the Big Shamrock's gifts are above the neck these days, and he delivered before the Celtics played the Knicks in ways that Doc Rivers can only dream of him contributing on the court.
It was the Shaq show in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden, where the big fella's voluminous, notebook-filling tendencies had New York scribes lamenting the fact that Shaq declined the Knicks' interest in him early in July. Had LeBron James come to New York, Shaq might have followed, and the atmosphere at MSG for the revamped Knicks' debut on American soil would've been considerably heightened on a baseball-playoff night in mid-October.
|Shaquille O'Neal, shown with Dwight Howard in February, once called Howard an 'impostor,' but now calls him a 'real center.' (US Presswire)|
But the most interesting stuff came when Shaq declared the era of the dominant NBA low-post center over. OK, Shaq is a little late to the party on this one, but he has earned the right to declare the dominant center era over whenever the mood strikes him.
"I think I killed off all the centers and now all the centers want to play the European-style basketball," O'Neal said before watching the Celtics beat the Knicks 104-101 in Stoudemire's Garden debut. "There's only 1.5 or 2 real centers left, Dwight Howard and Yao Ming. Every now and then Yao Ming steps outside and wants to shoot jumpers, but it's gone more toward the European style. The days of Patrick Ewing and Rik Smits and Kevin Duckworth and Robert Parish, those days are over, thanks to me."
Someone asked if a center can still be a difference-maker in today's NBA, and Shaq said, "No. Not shooting jumpers."
But in a playoff series?
"Yeah, guys like Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, guys that have youth behind them," O'Neal said. "I've never lost a series to a guy shooting jumpers -- besides Pau [Gasol], but Pau has a couple of extra weapons with him. There hasn't been a center that has won shooting jumpers. Pau is 60-40 -- 60 inside and 40 shooting jumpers. So I think the centers are getting a little more Pau Gasolish."
|More on Celtics at Knicks|
Case in point: Shaq's assignment Wednesday night, had he chosen to accept it, would've been Knicks rookie Timofey Mozgov, a 7-1 center from Russia. Asked for his thoughts on "the Russian guy," Shaq responded, "What Russian guy?"
One guy who is definitely not Russian, and whom O'Neal suddenly has taken to heaping with praise, is Howard. At every other opportunity in the past couple of years, Shaq has done nothing but tear down the Magic center, ridiculing him as a Superman impostor and saying he wasn't impressed because, "Everything he's done, I've invented."
But on Wednesday night, Shaq was saying this: "Dwight Howard plays like a true big man, like we all played. ... He's actually, in my eyes, a true center. The game has changed, but to me he's 95-5 -- 95 inside and every now and then he'll try to face up and shoot it off the glass. That's how I like to see dominant big men play."
So I asked Shaq where all the love for Howard was coming from after he had been so critical in the past.
"I wasn't critical," O'Neal said. "It's just that I know how to add fuel to the fire. But he does play like a true big man. I can't say that he doesn't play like a true big man. I was just saying last year that when I was his age, I didn't have the luxury of calling a double to help me on Patrick Ewing. I would've loved to have help on Pat Ewing and Rik Smits and all those guys, but I played them straight up. So, you want my respect, play straight up. That's all I said."
Well, it wasn't all he said ... but whatever. And as it turned out, O'Neal wasn't done holding court for the night. In the closing minutes, when Jermaine O'Neal fouled out and Rivers had to sub Paul Pierce back in because Kevin Garnett had been ejected, the Garden crowd serenaded the other O'Neal with a healthy chorus of, "We want Shaq!"
Shaq, working over a giant wad of bubble gum, bobbed his head in agreement. It's only two weeks until the Celtics play the Heat on opening night, when Shaq will embark on what he likes to call his "last 700 days" in the league he dominated for so long.
"If I did have an individual goal, it probably would be to pass Wilt Chamberlain in scoring," O'Neal said. " ... Then I could feel comfortable with myself saying that I was the most dominant player if I had more championships and more points than him. But I don't have any individual goals that I'm going for. I'm just trying to get No. 5 this year."