LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Lakers were holding to a double-digit lead late in the opening game of the NBA's Western Conference final, when Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy decided that a desperate situation called for a desperate measure.
He ordered his players to intentionally foul league Most Valuable Player Shaquille O'Neal every time the Lakers got the ball, hoping that O'Neal's notoriously poor free-throw shooting would allow Portland to get back into the game.
It is a strategy known in these parts as "hack-a-Shaq," and it has been used before to blunt the offensive prowess of the league's most dominant player, but as the clock ran down on a resounding109-94 Lakers victory at the sold-out Staples Center, there was room to worry that the tactic might turn this high-profile playoff series into a travesty."We kind of knew they were going to do that," said O'Neal, who poured in seven straight free throws in one stretch to cement the victory and pad his game-high 41-point performance. "I think it's a total show of respect for my game. I missed a couple, but I just stayed with it and caught a rhythm."
Actually, he missed seven of eight after the Blazers began to pound on him - which would have made Dunleavy look like a genius if his team had done anything offensively to take advantage - but would recover to render the strategy ridiculous. The only indication that the strategy had any effect on O'Neal was the steely glare he focused on the Trail Blazers coach each time down the floor."I wasn't trying to be disrespectful," O'Neal said. "I just wanted to let the whole world know that's not going to work ... ever."
Dunleavy was unapologetic afterward, even though the game ground to a virtual halt and the strategy did not have the desired effect. He wouldn't rule out using it again in the best-of-seven series, even in less-than-desperate situations."He's a 40percent free-throw shooter," Dunleavy said. "Today, he was13-for-27, which is a little bit under 50percent. Obviously, if we get down in a game, it's not a bad strategy. If we had scored better, we would have been in the game."
That wasn't obvious to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who wondered whether the Blazers might have made a game of it if they had kept the offensive pressure on in the fourth quarter. They battled back from a24-point first-half deficit to pull withinnine points with five minutes left, while deriving only a minor benefit from the "hack-a-Shaq" strategy.
Though Jackson stopped short of criticizing Dunleavy for turning an exciting game into a one-man free-throw shooting contest, he did find some fault with the rule that allows teams to commit fouls in their own favor."The game is supposed to be played where you shouldn't be able to profit from fouling," he said. "Originally, when the game was invented by Dr.Naismith, players who fouled had to sit out. The game has changed, and we foul for profit now."
The Trail Blazers didn't lose the game at the Lakers' free-throw line. It was all but decided in the second quarter, when the Lakers adjusted to Dunleavy's other anti-Shaq strategy to break a close game open with a 14-0 run and carried a21-point lead into intermission.
Obviously conceding that 7-foot-3 center Arvydas Sabonis had little chance to stop7-1 O'Neal inside, the Blazers dropped back one and sometimes two extra defenders to keep him from dominating in the paint. The Lakers countered with a shower of three-point shots -three of them by reserve forward Robert Horry - to take control of the game."When another 7-footer has to call two of his teammates down to help him because he couldn't guard me, that's the ultimate show of respect," O'Neal said. "They were doubling and tripling me, so I got my teammates involved and they made their shots."
Forward Glen Rice finished with15points. Kobe Bryant added 13 and Horry finished with12. Veteran forward Scottie Pippen led the Trail Blazers with19points, andfive other players scored in double figures.
Portland's chances of staging a successful second-half comeback would have been greatly improved if power forward Rasheed Wallace had not gotten ejected from the game halfway through the third quarter.
Wallace, who set an NBA record with 38techincal fouls during the regular season, was charged with a his sixth technical of the playoffs for arguing with referee Ron Garretson in the first half. He got a second technical - and an early exit from the arena - for merely glaring at the official.
Garretson could be heard over the NBC television broadcast explaining to Portland guard Steve Smith that he had warned Wallace twice about attempting to intimidate him.
Though Dunleavy sided with Wallace on the thin basis for the ejection, he indicated that he could not continue to put himself into situations that cost him playing time - especially at this stage in the postseason."Obviously, we can't have an All-Star sitting in the locker room when the game is under 10points with six minutes left," Dunleavy said. "Obviously, it's important to be on the floor at that point. He has to understand that.
The series continues tomorrow night in Los Angeles with Game2, which would appear to be a must-win situation if the Trail Blazers hope to advance to the NBA Finals.