You didn’t hear stories of depressed Ohioans lining up to jump into the Cuyahoga River when it was discovered that Shaquille O’Neal is likely out for the rest of the regular season after thumb surgery.
There are two reasons why the hoop fans of Cleveland aren’t on suicide watch. The Cavs actually play pretty well without O’Neal, as they’ve demonstrated time and again this season. The other reason is that Shaq’s presence in Cleveland – and he once swore he’d never play in a cold-weather city - is for the playoffs in general and Dwight Howard in particular.
And, unless O’Neal suddenly goes on The Wire’s ‘Proposition Joe’ Diet while recovering, he should be ready to play by the time of the presumptive Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Cavs and the Orlando Magic. Until then? Not to worry.
There was no sense of impending doom in the Cleveland locker room last week when O’Neal had to leave the game against the Celtics with what at the time was being reported as a significant thumb injury. True, there was no definitive word on the severity of the injury. But that game pretty much turned when O’Neal went out and the Cavs rolled the Celtics in the fourth quarter with a smaller, quicker lineup.
After the game, LeBron James admitted that the Cavs’ best defensive unit was one with Anderson Varejao in the middle and JJ Hickson at the power forward slot. That unit is quicker, more athletic, James said. But, he quickly added, the Cavs still need Shaq.
But do they really? What if O’Neal doesn’t get back into shape? Do the Cavs still have enough to win their first NBA championship with O’Neal watching as an expensive cheerleader on the bench?
Yes, they do.
Provided, of course, that Zydrunas Ilgauskas returns (more people believe in the tooth fairy than believe he won’t) and provided that Leon Powe is back to full health and Mike Brown, the Cavs’ coach, gives him some playing time. He can be a beast.
Cleveland has done an excellent job this season of absorbing all that is Shaq, from the outsized personality to the limited playing time. Brown gave him the starting job. O’Neal has consistently deferred to James, playing the gray eminence role to perfection. Shaq also contributed 12 points and 6.7 rebounds while playing only 23.4 minutes over 53 games. Before the injury in Boston, he had scored 20 points each in the previous two games going 18-of-23 from the field.
All of this was a bonus, for the addition of O’Neal was generally seen as a move for the post-season, when things slow down and bodies fly. In the regular season, he might be seen as a defensive liability (the next pick-and-roll he defends will be the first one) and clogging up the middle on offense. He rarely draws double-teams anymore.
But in the playoffs, where everything supposedly slows to a trench-warfare pace, the thinking was that Shaq would be invaluable, muscling up on the ultra-ripped Howard while serving a reminder as to who, really, was the real Superman. The memories of Howard destroying Shaq-less Cleveland last year in the playoffs are hard to forget, especially the devastating elimination game, where the Orlando center lit up the Cavs for 40 points. Over the six games, Howard averaged close to 26 points and 13 rebounds a game.
The Cavs didn’t have anyone then who could stop Howard then and, realistically, they still don’t. Who does? But Cleveland looks to be a better overall team going into this year’s playoffs with arrival of Antawn Jamison (who can be a double-figure rebounder in addition to a scoring threat), the emergence of Hickson as a dynamo and the mind-boggling excellence of James, who just won another Eastern Conference Player of the Month award. No one else from the East has won one this season. The Cavs also added depth at the wing positions in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.
Right now, and things can certainly change, the Cavaliers and the Magic look to be headed towards a conference final matchup. The Celtics, the best team in the conference in the first two months, look to be grinding to a halt with injuries and age coinciding at absolutely the wrong time. Atlanta is your proverbial wild card. No one else seems ready to crack the top tier.
If the timelines hold true, O’Neal could be cleared to play at the end of April, which would be around the start of the second round of the playoffs. That’s assuming, of course, that all goes well, that Shaq is in playoff shape (as opposed to regular-season shape) and that the Cavs can re-integrate him into the rotation without messing things up. But what if they’re on a roll like last year, when they swept the first two series? Do they still bring back Shaq?
That’s why they brought him to Cleveland in the first place. But if for some reason, the recovery doesn’t go as planned and Shaq has played his last game of the 2009-10 season, fear not, title-starved Clevelanders. The Cavaliers still have enough to get the job done, assuming of course, that No. 23 (soon to be No. 6) doesn’t hurt his thumb and miss two months. He’s the only one Cleveland really can’t afford to lose.