We're not used to seeing the Big Fella unplugged like this. We're not used to seeing him reduced to the size of a regular humanoid through an opponent's double- and triple-teams. We're not accustomed to seeing Shaq score a measly five points in any kind of playoff game, much less the NBA Finals — not after he got us all jacked up for one of his throwback Shaq performances, one where he steps in the way-back machine and goes for something close to 30 points and 20 rebounds to lead his team to victory.
Shaquille O'Neal doesn't make stupid guarantees; he's not Rasheed Wallace. But when Shaq is coming off a game where he has no impact, and he starts talking on the day off about living on another planet and being 330 pounds of sexy, it usually means good things for him and trouble for everyone on earth. The promise is implicit. It comes with a wink and the simple declarative statement, "I'll do better next game, bro." We've seen it for the better part of 14 years, particularly in the NBA Finals where Shaq has averaged 32.6 points per game, trailing only Wilt and Michael Jordan.
Pretty much all of us entered American Airlines Center on Sunday night expecting Shaq to go interplanetary. He had been so loose on the eve of Game 2, so fun-loving in the way only he can be. Usually, these comedic sessions precede a monster game. The Dallas Mavericks had to expect it. Their fans did, too, which is most likely why they were eerily quiet during the home team introductions.
And sure enough, Shaq won the opening tip-off, and Shaq scored the first points of the game by powering inside for a layup while being fouled. Shaq had come to the rescue and no amount of missed free throws were going to stop him. Missed free throws? Shaq once missed 21 of 39 foul shots in a Finals game, six years ago against Indiana. And he still scored 40 points in the game. And the Lakers still won. So, the NBA Finals were on, right?
Umm . . . not exactly. The NBA Finals look to be over at this point, even though the next three games will be played in Miami. Dallas is quicker, deeper, more versatile on offense, tougher on defense, and perhaps even better coached. The Mavericks, without even playing a great game, have won each of the first two games in the series by double-digits, including Sunday night's 99-85 Game 2 blowout.
Don't let the final score fool you; Miami was never a threat. Shaq was helpless to do anything about it, mostly because his team simply isn't good enough and his Hall of Fame coach hasn't yet discovered a Plan B.
The synopsis of Game 2 is this: The Mavericks decided to throw quick double-teams and sometimes triple teams at Shaq to force him to pass the ball. Sometimes, Dallas used its best offensive player, Dirk Nowitzki to double-team Shaq and since Dirk is every bit as tall as Shaq, the only smart thing for the Diesel to do was to throw the ball quickly to one of his open teammates.
What Shaq did time after time was make the smart basketball play. At 7 feet, 325 pounds, Shaq isn't Jordan or Kobe Bryant or even teammate Dwyane Wade. Shaq isn't going to create his own shot; he can't. He's entirely dependent on teammates tossing him the ball, and if double-teamed, making open shots. In the second quarter, when Dallas outscored Miami 32-17, Dallas shot 71 percent while Miami missed 10 of 18 shots and 5 of 6 from three-point land.
Shaq, swarmed, would toss the ball out to an unguarded Antoine Walker, who would throw up a brick.
Shaq, harassed, would toss the ball out to a wide-open Jason Williams, who would miss.
Shaq, entangled, would toss the ball out to Gary Payton, who would chuck up another brick.
Even Wade, the player I would take over all others in the NBA if I had the first pick, turned into (relatively speaking) a brick-layer. Wade has never looked so out of it.
There wasn't a Rick Fox or Ron Harper or Derek Fisher or Robert Horry in sight.
Nobody in a Miami uniform could hit a shot. So Dallas kept swarming Shaq the moment he caught the ball, and Shaq kept hitting open teammates in the chest with pinpoint passes as if he was John Elway. And Miami players kept missing. Riley's guys, the ones he brought in to win a title, kept throwing up bricks.
Okay, you don't want to make grand declarations before the series even swings back east, before Miami even gets a home game. But the simple fact is that in the 21 years of the 2-3-2 format, no team that has lost the first two games has ever come back to win. You have to win one on the road to start the Finals, and Miami didn't do that. And there's nothing whatsoever to suggest Miami can win three straight home games against Dallas, not the way the Mavericks are killing the Heat on the boards and not the way the more athletic Mavericks are using their quickness to blow past Miami to the basket and frustrate Wade at the other end.
I could have sworn I saw Erick Dampier — a man Shaq called Erika only a year ago — flex his muscles early in the fourth quarter with Dallas nursing a big lead.
You watch Miami get blown out like this and you have to wonder what Shaq will say on Monday before Tuesday's Game 3. You wonder what he'll say after going 2 for 5 from the floor and 1 for 7 from the line. Five points in 28 minutes. His previous Finals low in 26 championship games, was 14. His previous playoff low in 190 playoff games. He's missed 14 of 16 free throws in this series. Where does he go from here? To his teammates? What teammates?
To his coach? What is Pat Riley going to say now? Where does he turn?
Certainly not to his bench, which he famously avoids using. The Miami Heat is in trouble. The only man who can bail them out is up to his neck in water, and as of yet, nobody is throwing him a life raft.