Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Shaq shows why he's not the best

Shaq describes himself as dominant. And there's no doubt about that. Even at the end of his career the big guy can still move some bodies when he gets a mind to. Unfortunately there is a lot more to NBA basketball than knocking people down. Especially in the playoffs where talent evens up a good bit.

Miami caught a break in game 3 of the finals, but so far Shaq has been mediocre at best. Dallas has zeroed in on shutting him down, forcing the rest of the Heat to beat them and until game 3 it wasn't happening. And while Miami won a game, it wasn't like they punished Dallas for picking on Shaq. They sneaked past a Dallas team that might have gotten a little unfocused.

The bottom line is that the problem lies with Shaq. It always has. As dominant as the guy can be, teams have proven time and time again that you can beat Shaq if you foul him hard and send him to the line. With a career free throw percentage a shade over 50%, it's just good basketball economics. Shaq with the ball in the paint equals two points nine times out of ten. Shaq on the line needs four shots to score two points. On a good night a couple of nights ago he was 0-fer.

This is the finals and Shaq is making a little more than a quarter of his free throws. 27%! He's supposed to be a great basketball player, but do great players go 6 for 22 from the free throw line? Miami as a team is only hitting about 55% from the stripe which is about what Dallas is shooting from the field.

As dominant as Shaq is, I can't give the man his due because he has dismissed one of the most basic aspects of the game: That 15 foot set shot they let you take whenever you get fouled. Shaq's taken a lot of trips to the free throw line in his career and has visited the charity stripe 22 times in three finals games. Every one of those missed shots is a missed point. In the finals those points might add up to another victory. In his career those missed free throws amount to a career's worth of points that could be added to his legacy.

But that's only part of the story. If Shaq made more free throws he'd get fouled less and that would mean more access to the basket. What's the point in sending the guy to the line and wasting those fouls if he's going to score the points anyway? Why risk fouling the guy when he's got a good look and risk that three point play?

Shaq's free throw woes have hurt his teams and they have hurt his career. He's tired and showing his age. Not uncommon for a man of his size, but if Shaq didn't take such a pounding night after night he'd be in better shape. In fact, he might have enough juice left in him to play more minutes in these finals. The fact is, if Shaq made free throws, he'd be better off.

It wasn't an issue in LA. The Lakers had enough talent around Shaq to easily offset his missed opportunities from the line and Shaq was a younger player who could power through those hard fouls and come up big with rebounds and blocks. Now Shaq doesn't do nearly as much away from the ball and Miami is paying the price in the finals. Dallas can see when the ball is heading to Shaq and they employ the latest version of Hack-a-Shaq when he gets it. It's working like a charm.

Getting to this point is a fine accomplishment and Dallas is a more experienced and better rounded team. They should win and Miami shouldn't be disappointed if they come out on the short end, but it would be a shame if the Heat lost because Shaq couldn't deliver crucial free throws when they matter the most. Shaq has always claimed that he sinks those buckets when they matter. So far, he's 6-22 in the finals. Does it matter yet?

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