Get the joke, everyone? The Cavaliers continue their home stand hosting the Miami Heat tonight at the Q. Shaq used to play for Miami and even won a title with that team several years ago. Their nickname is the Heat and has been so since they entered the league in 1988. Shaquille “The Big Shaqtus” O’Neal also happens to be playing his best basketball of the season as of late.
Entering this historic season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the uncertainty following the acquisition for Shaq was definitely the biggest question mark. Many of the writers on this site openly criticized the trade when it happened, including this writer. On the surface, it was a desperate gamble for GM Danny Ferry to prove to LeBron James that he was serious about winning a championship immediately. Nobody knew how much of an impact Shaq would actually make on the court and it seems we are only starting to find out now.
The entire season thus far for Shaq culminated in the easy victory over Memphis on Tuesday. The Big Aristotle finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds in only 21 minutes of play while absolutely dominating much-improved Marc Gasol and All-Star Zach Randolph on the glass. It was his seventh double-double of the year and after the game, players and coaches for the Cavs joked about how Shaq seemed to trick them earlier in the season with his slow start:
“He looks great,” [LeBron] James said. “He’s motivated. When Mo and Delonte went down he decided to step his game up, which we knew he could do. He’s just playing with a little bounce in his step that he didn’t have at the start. But he had a different mindset than we all thought. We all thought he was playing slow, he was just saving himself for the second half of the season. He tricked all of us, I guess,” he said.
There is no doubt that the Shaquille O’Neal of the past several weeks is playing a very different style of basketball than the one that started the season. From the first few games of the year, the Cavaliers and head coach Mike Brown had much trouble figuring out what to do with Shaq’s wide frame in the middle of the post. Many fans and writers here complained about the Twin Towers lineup scheme, and by the way, it was the beginning of the worst stretch of basketball in Shaquille O’Neal’s career.
Through his first 24 games this season, he averaged only 10.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per contest. All three of those numbers were career lows (they still remain so as well), and as John Krolik at “Cavs: The Blog” pointed out a few months back, it seemed that the team actually did better when he was not being forced into the offensive schemes. This stretch of games carried out until the Cavaliers defeated Sacramento in overtime back on December 23rd and suddenly something clicked for the almost 38-year-old product of LSU.
Just in time for the biggest game of the season up to that point, Shaquille O’Neal delivered in the very entertaining rout of the Lakers back on Christmas Day. He posted only 11 points and seven rebounds, right next to his season averages, but helped dictate the tempo of the game on both sides of the ball. Since that day, the big man has recorded double-figures in scoring in 19 of the past 20 Cleveland contests. Not coincidentally, the Cavs hold an awesome 17-3 in these 20 games as well as an NBA-best 24-4 in their past 28 overall.
Analyzing the statistics between these two time periods, before and after Christmas Day, it is amazing to see what really has changed. Remarkably, his rebounds, personal fouls and defensive rating all seem to be right around the exact same during this time. His blocks are down just slightly but in return, his assists on the offensive end are up by about the exact same percentage. The main difference however, as illustrated quite negatively in Krolik’s post a month ago, is Shaq’s efficiency at shooting the basketball.
With his extremely wide 7’1″, 325-lb frame, Shaq became one of the greatest centers in NBA history by absolutely demolishing opponents in the paint. He then created easy shot opportunities in any given situation, and in every year of his career where he played at least 52 games, he posted a true shooting percentage of at least 57.0%. In contrast, his true shooting percentage in the first 24 games of 2009-2010 was only 51.3%, much lower than his mark of 62.3% last year with the Phoenix Suns (ranking third in the NBA) and not at all what Cavs fans expected.
Now give the big man an absolute ton of credit. Instead of possibly tearing apart this monumentally important season in Cleveland sports history, Shaq and the Cavs finally started to blend together. Utilizing the Lakers game as an extreme confidence booster, O’Neal is now averaging 13.4 points per game in his past 20 contests. As stated earlier, there is relatively no change in his rebounding or defensive skills, but the big man is scoring 4.5 more points per 36 minutes more per contest thanks to startling revitalization of his shooting efficiency.
In these 20 games, Shaq has an very impressive 61.9% true shooting mark. That puts him right on par with his averages from last season, a year where he set a new career-high in this category thanks to the fast break offense of Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. The team has found a way to create easy opportunities for the big man and he is also starting to learn how to be efficient offensively with this roster. On the season now, the Cavs are 24-2 when O’Neal has a true shooting percentage of greater than 54.2%.
It is absolutely unbelievable to consider that the Cleveland Cavaliers have already played 50 games during this 09-10 season. With only 32 games left in the regular schedule and hopefully many more in the playoffs, we have already seen a great turnaround in the play of the team’s largest player. The key for the Cavs over the next several months will be the continued utilization of his offensive strengths, especially against the top teams in the league. Shaq has won over my vote of confidence with his play recently, and he will look to keep up his streak of hot play tonight against his former team.
(The top picture above from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and via Hector Gabino/El Nuevo Herald/MCT. Second photo is from David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images.)