On the subject of comic-book superheroes, Orlando Magic center
Shaquille O'Neal knows whereof he speaks, which should not be
surprising, since he is built along the lines of the Incredible
Hulk. But O'Neal, who wears a Superman tattoo on his left biceps,
identifies more closely with the Man of Steel, which begs an
obvious question in light of the heroic performance of Houston
Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon so far in the NBA playoffs: If
O'Neal is Superman, what does that make Olajuwon? ``Hakeem is
Aquaman,'' says O'Neal, ``because he's so fluid.''
That is precisely what Olajuwon is, his every move flowing
gracefully into the next. The pump fake becomes a pirouette, which
turns into a shoulder feint, which leads to a shot that softly
nestles into the net. ``Dream can make a guy look silly trying to
stop all those moves,'' says Tree Rollins, the Magic's backup
center and assistant coach. ``It's almost better to get dunked on
than to have him fake you out so badly that he's scoring while
you're still looking in the other direction.''
It is that fluidity that enables Olajuwon to make a mockery of
the conventional wisdom that superstars cannot be stopped, only
contained. Containing Olajuwon is like trying to grab the wind
or capture a river in a bottle. The Magic's approach in the NBA
Finals will be not so much to contain him but to interrupt his
flow and give him as much to worry about as possible: Will he be
guarded this time down the floor by the powerful O'Neal or the
more agile Horace Grant, Orlando's power forward? When he is
double-teamed, as he will be often, where will the second
defender come from? It may be Grant or small forward Dennis
Scott this time, but who will it be next time? And when will the
second defender arrive? Will it be as soon as Olajuwon gets the
ball, or will the Magic wait until he makes his move? ``He has
so many moves that he hardly ever does the same thing twice,''
says another Orlando assistant coach, Richie Adubato. ``We have
to think the same way, give him lots of different things to look
And, of course, the Magic will make sure that Olajuwon is kept
busy at the other end of the floor, trying to stop O'Neal. By
progressing to the Finals, the Rockets have vindicated their trade
of power forward Otis Thorpe for guard Clyde Drexler, but the fact
remains that Thorpe was able to guard opposing centers, allowing
Olajuwon to conserve his energy and stay out of foul trouble.
Without Thorpe, Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich cannot afford to
take Olajuwon off O'Neal for long stretches. ``Dream will be a
challenge for Shaq to guard,'' says Rollins. ``But he's got to
guard Shaq, too, and the big fella will muscle Hakeem in as close
to the basket as he can and try to rip the rim off.''
Olajuwon is the league's only elite center for whom O'Neal's
feelings go beyond respect, to admiration. None of the sarcasm or
disdain that sometimes creeps into Shaq's comments about other big
men is present when he talks about Olajuwon. ``He's a great
player, the best. In my mind he was the MVP this year,'' says
O'Neal, who finished second to San Antonio Spur center David
Robinson in the voting while Olajuwon was fifth. ``I don't want to
be compared to anybody but Hakeem.''
As confident as the Orlando coaching staff is about O'Neal,
Olajuwon's annihilation of Robinson in the Western Conference
finals gave them pause. ``He was incredible, absolutely
incredible,'' says Magic coach Brian Hill. ``He has put that team
on his shoulders and carried it through the playoffs.''
Olajuwon left Robinson not just beaten but demoralized, and
Orlando knows there is an important psychological component to
O'Neal's matchup with him. ``I don't think we can afford to let
Shaq get frustrated,'' says Adubato. ``If Hakeem gets on the kind
of roll he was on against the Spurs, we have to react to it
quickly, whether it's by doubling him quicker or more often, or by
trying a different matchup. But it's important to keep Shaq in the
right frame of mind.''
O'Neal is not as adept a shot blocker as Robinson, which the Magic
staff feels may actually be to his advantage against Houston,
because he is less likely to leave his feet on Olajuwon's fakes, a
suicidal tendency against the Dream. Where Olajuwon's duel with
Robinson was a matchup of similar styles, the Olajuwon-O'Neal
confrontation is a study in contrasts -- Olajuwon's experience and
finesse against O'Neal's youth and power.
Although they differ stylistically in the middle, Orlando and
Houston are built from much the same blueprint -- each has a
dominant center on whom it depends to score or to attract the
double teams that create open shots for perimeter players. ``The
two teams might run into each other because we're such carbon
copies,'' says Adubato. ``Shaq and Hakeem will meet on the left
block, because that's where they like to set up. We both like to
go inside to our big man, and everything else is dependent on
spacing, ball movement and three-point shooting.''
Since O'Neal and Olajuwon have basically canceled each other out
in their six career meetings -- the Dream has averaged 23.8 points
and 10.8 rebounds to Shaq's 20.7 and 12.8 rebounds -- it is the
cast of characters revolving around them who will probably decide
the series. The Rockets' supporting players have blown hot and
cold, which is why Houston has flirted with elimination so often
in the playoffs. Drexler and forward Robert Horry have been the
perfect complement to Olajuwon at times, and virtually invisible
Houston is particularly tough when Drexler is on top of his game,
giving the Rockets a second major offensive threat, but Horry may
be the key player for Houston. He is more naturally suited to
small forward, but Horry played power forward in the series
against San Antonio, with Mario Elie, heretofore a bench player,
starting at small forward in Games 5 and 6. If Horry can play
effectively at power forward, it would limit the Magic's defensive
options. Orlando wouldn't be able to use Grant against Olajuwon
because that would force O'Neal to guard Horry, who is far too
quick for Shaq. But if using Horry at power forward leaves the
Rockets too weak on the backboards, they'll have to abandon that
plan and use lesser offensive threats like Chucky Brown and Pete
Orlando guard Nick Anderson may be as important to the Magic as
Horry is to the Rockets, because Anderson's crucial task will be
to keep Drexler in check. Anderson has already had memorable
playoff moments against perhaps the league's two best shooting
guards, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the Indiana Pacers'
Reggie Miller -- on Sunday he limited a strangely flat Miller to
12 points on only 13 shots in Orlando's 105-81 annihilation of
Indiana in Game 7 of the Eastern finals -- and if he is as
effective against Drexler, even Olajuwon will be hard pressed to
carry the Rockets to their second straight title.
Tomjanovich is crossing his fingers, as he did a year ago, and
hoping to get a competent performance at point guard from either
Kenny Smith or Sam Cassell. So far, one or the other of them has
usually been there to answer his prayers. Although the Magic won't
say it publicly, the team believes the Rockets are more dangerous
with Cassell in the lineup. But either the 6'3" Cassell or the 6'
3" Smith figures to have difficulty dealing with Orlando's 6'7"
point guard, Anfernee Hardaway, who has shown more confidence in
each successive playoff series, including an efficient 17-point
performance on 7-for-9 shooting on Sunday.
Although the peripheral battles may be the decisive ones in the
Finals, most eyes will be trained on the confrontation in the
middle. Much has been made of how O'Neal has expanded his
offensive repertoire during the past year, but Olajuwon has added
new wrinkles as well, which is a scary thought. Having mastered
traditional post play, Olajuwon has added to his stunning array of
moves by studying guards and small forwards and adapting some of
the tricks of their trade to his game. ``There's no single way to
play him anymore,'' says Rollins. ``There was a time when your
best bet was to force him to the middle, away from that baseline
jumper he likes. But now he can hurt you just as bad going into
the lane. Now you just have to do the best you can and hope that
help is on the way.''
Somehow it's hard to imagine an athlete as proud as O'Neal just
trying to hold on until reinforcements arrive. ``Shaq loves
challenges,'' says Hardaway. ``And he knows this is a huge
challenge. He's seen what Hakeem has done throughout the playoffs.
We've all seen it. But the bigger the challenge, the better Shaq
That will have to be the case if the Magic is to skip the years
of postseason disappointment that usually precede a team's first
championship. Orlando is a more talented team than Houston, and
it has stockpiled a great deal of experience in a hurry. But the
Rockets have the fluid Olajuwon, and as O'Neal knows, it would
take a superman to stop the rush of a river. The guess here is
that Shaq is super enough to do it.
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER The Pacers barely gave Shaq room to breathe in the Eastern finals, and the Rockets also hope to smother him. [Shaquille O'Neal jumping with basketball surrounded by four Indiana Pacers]
COLOR PHOTO:MANNY MILLANO'Neal's 20.7 scoring average against Houston nearly offsets Olajuwon's 23.8 against Orlando. [Shaquille O'Neal shooting the ball with one hand]COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER O'Neal's power should prevail, but Orlando fans were perhaps too eager to face Olajuwon's arsenal. [Shaquille O'Neal dunking basketball]COLOR PHOTO:MANNY MILLAN [see caption above--Orlando fans holding "BRING ON OLAJUWON" sign]