Shaq-Hakeem duel has Magic ending


ORLANDO, Fla. -- Forget the endorsements, forget the recording career, forget the upcoming movie and forget the superman insignia tattooed on his left tricep.

If Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal wants to be considered the best center in basketball, he's going to have to prove it on the court against the NBA's best.

He did that last night, playing the league's top big man, Hakeem Olajuwon, to a standoff and his teammates did the rest in a 115-100 win before 15,291 at Orlando Arena and a national cable audience.

The final stats: O'Neal scored 28 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had four assists in 39 minutes. Olajuwon had 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals in 38 minutes. But while both posted solid numbers, neither was a real factor in deciding the game.

Orlando (19-13) and Houston (27-5) both entered the game posting the best starts in the history of their respective franchises.

But it was a game of bigger magnitude for the Magic, going up against the league's No. 2 team.

"They've been playing real well and their record showed that," O'Neal said. "We just played hard, and we won."

In their two meetings last season, success was difficult to come by for O'Neal against Olajuwon. O'Neal averaged 14 points a game (nine below his average) as the Magic split.

"[Olajuwon's] clearly the best center in the league," O'Neal said in the days before the game.

And Olajuwon, giving up two inches and 45 pounds, showed that early. The game was only nine seconds old when he hit a baseline jumper over O'Neal. The first time O'Neal tried to establish low-post position, he was stripped by Olajuwon.

By the end of the first quarter O'Neal had just two points and one rebound. Olajuwon, meanwhile, was having his way with eight points, four rebounds, two blocks and three steals. Still, through 12 minutes, the Magic was even at 26.

But O'Neal began to make his statement in the second quarter when he scored eight points in the first 3:30. But Houston's constant double-teaming hampered O'Neal. By halftime Orlando assistant coach Tree Rollins (activated for last night's game) had two rebounds, double the number of O'Neal.

"He's the leading scorer in the league, near the top in percentage, and that's their strength," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "We were charting it as far as how much we were going to double, and make sure the percentages were in our favor. I still believe our strategy was the right one."

What the Rockets didn't count on was the contributions of the other members of the Magic, who attempted 22 three-pointers (hitting five). Anfernee Hardaway scored 28 points, and Nick Anderson and Scott Skiles each added 16.

At the end of three quarters the Magic had an 86-82 lead. Orlando eventually would go up by as many as 19 on the way to the victory that placed the Magic six games over .500 for the first time in franchise history.

And O'Neal -- he even smiled during the fourth quarter.

"He's great, but I think I do the same thing every night," O'Neal said. "I'm a very consistent player. Any time you play against a guy like him, you know you gotta do well."

O'Neal's claim of consistency is accurate. Going into last night he was the only player in the league ranked in the top five in scoring (first), field-goal percentage (second), rebounds (third) and blocks (fifth). Olajuwon, playing alongside a much more impressive supporting cast, still ranked second in blocked shots, third in scoring, fifth in rebounding and 13th in field-goal percentage.

So does O'Neal feel his performance will get him his proper respect?

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I don't want people to underestimate us as a team. We beat a good team. It should be a confidence-builder for us."

On the other side of the arena, Olajuwon was complimentary, too.

"He got his average -- he's a fantastic player," Olajuwon said. "Toward the end, the momentum shifted. We were making mistakes."

Credit that to the Magic, who are hoping the win boosts the young team toward the upper echelon.

"If we can stay consistent, we can make the playoffs for the first time," O'Neal said. "But we haven't won anything yet."

Not yet. But O'Neal, simply by playing Olajuwon to a standoff, may have won a lot in terms of respect.

Houston .. 26 .. 28 .. 28 .. 18 .. -- .. 100

Orlando .. 26 .. 33 .. 27 .. 29 .. -- .. 115

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