As Rick touched on in his recap, the Cavs definitely flipped a proverbial switch after a slow start and came on to trounce the Wizards 102-90. And, as Rick pointed out, “Shaquille O’Neal had his best game as a Cavalier.” Granted, the sample size is a bit small with only five games, but to my eyes we definitely caught a glimpse of what the Cavs are expecting from Shaq when the games really count (you know, in April and on).
A couple of things stood out to me as I watched this game, specifically in relation to The Big Aristotle and his game. First and foremost, Rock was spot on in his preview: “The one thing the Wizards lack is a lot of depth on their interior. Brendan Haywood has had a history of getting into early foul trouble against the Cavaliers, and so ideally the Cavs will look to Shaq early and often in this matchup in order to try to get Haywood out of the game and tilt that advantage even further in their favor.” So, kudos to Mike Brown and company for finally getting that memo, and punishing the Wizards inside with Shaq.
But, it wasn’t just the game plan; it was Shaq’s execution. In 29 minutes, the Big Fella dropped in 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, and a staggering 7-of-10 free throws. He grabbed eight boards (two offensive) and also dished three assists. It was a complete game for Shaq, and there were a few points where I really got the feeling that everything will be OK in the end.
Because in addition to finally looking more like his normal self on offense, he did so completely in the context of the Cavs’ offense as a whole. The Cavs sent him the ball early and often, and he did his job: he scored while also getting ALL of the Wizards’ big men in foul trouble. Yes, the Cavs also got big lifts from Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, and Mo Williams’ Jump Shot, but the Wizards had no answer for Shaq in the lane, and it cost them. There were at least three times in my memory now, as well, where had the ball simply rolled a tiny bit the other way Shaq would have had and-ones at the free throw line. Most importantly, Shaq made them pay at the free throw line, which is definitely going to be a big point of contention come playoff time. It would be crazy to expect him to shoot 70% the entire year, but if he shoots close to 60% you can live with that for the trade off.
The other big difference between the first quarter and most of the second half was that the Cavs stopped letting Gilbert Arenas into the lane. Arenas was 4-of-6 in the first quarter, and three of those were from inside 12 feet. The rest of the game? 3-of-12, and only one made basket from inside 19 feet. And that’s the other great thing about Shaq’s game last night: he finally is starting to look like he gets the defense a bit. It didn’t feel, to me at least, that Brown had Shaq showing on high picks as much as he was early (or as much as Z does).
Part of that is attributable to having Delonte West back on the perimeter—his defense on Arenas when they matched up was solid. But, one need look no further than Rick’s recap picture of Shaq flat-out ERASING Mike Millers “weak stuff”–or also, another favorite of mine when he swallowed up DeShawn Stevenson to the point where The Neck-Bearded One “couldn’t see” the basket–to see that his interior defensive presence makes a difference on guys like Arenas who make a living slashing to the basket. It also makes sense that the longer these guys play together, the better they will look together—something many of us and many of you in the comments have been saying as well. If Mike Brown can figure out how to continue to use Shaq well to punish other team’s interior lineups on both ends, and the Big Man can continue to make his shots and be serviceable at the charity stripe, then the Cavs should be in good shape over the long haul.
Finally, Shaq understands that it is a marathon, and not a sprint. While we, the fans, were thirsty for ANYTHING good when the Cavs’ season kicked off, and thus we panicked a bit when they started off 0-2, I think Shaq knows that it’s going to take awhile for the team to gell, and he knows his body and his capabilities better than all of us. Why not use the early part of the season to get himself into shape for the sprint at the end?
Given that attitude, the Cavs probably won’t win 66 games again. But I would settle for that if they could win 6 more games in June this year when it counts.
Bonus points for the best caption/quote for the photo above.