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NBA Finals: Shaq rising to challenge of greatness

When Shaquille O'Neal was named as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players
four years ago, it seemed a tad premature. Yes, he had already established
himself as one of the most talented centres in the game. Yes, he had
dragged the Orlando Magic to the Final before he, and they, received a
thorough spanking from Hakeem Olajuwon and his Houston Rockets. And, he had nabbed in his first season-scoring title in the absence of an old fella named Jordan. 

But at that point, Shaq's name just didn't sit easily amid the other legends of the past half-century, guys like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain who had won everything and then some.  Now though, there is no disputing O'Neal's case to
join that exclusive club. The 7'1" Los Angeles Lakers star has this season
raised his game to new heights and answered all the questions placed in
his way.

No wonder then that when it came to selecting the campaign's Most Valuable
Player, there was really only one candidate in the running, only one voter
of the 121-member panel inexplicably finding an alternative choice. O'Neal,
28, finished the season with league-leading 29.7 points a game, was second
in rebounding (13.6 a game), third in blocks (3.03 a game) and helped his
team to the best record in the regular season.

However numbers alone don't truly capture Shaq's elevation to greatness. A
more diligent attitude to his craft has removed part of the effects of his
former achilles heel, foul shooting. So much so that when Portland embarked
on a Hack-a-Shaq spree on their Western Conference encounter last week,
O'Neal dropped all nine of his attempts from the penalty strip to throw the
tactics back in the face of Blazers' coach Mike Dunleavy. 

It is an improvement reflected in his ever-expanding list of self-awarded nicknames. The Big Aristotle (good thinker), The Big IPO (his stock keeps
rising), The Big Felon (for stealing the ball away from his opponents). The
old ego has not diminished but has been supplemented by an increased desire
to gather championships instead of rap records and endorsement, the true
benchmarks of sporting greatness.

"There's no doubt about it. He's the best player in the NBA right now," praises Londoner Michael Olowokandi, who has to live in Shaq's shadow as a member of the decidedly unfashionable LA Clippers. 

"When you go up against him, you know it will be a hard game because he's so
big and so strong. I can move as fast as any other centre in the NBA but
against Shaq, it's like trying to move against a house. It's not going anywhere. 

"Most centres who play Shaq usually get in foul trouble because there is no
nice way to stop him. I don't know whether it's down to Phil Jackson or
just due to his greater experience but he has gotten a lot better this
year. All he did before was that he would bang into you and pull a hook
shot or dunk on you. Now he has a jump shot and a lot more skills to go
with it." 

Shaq will get another shot at the title against the Indiana Pacers yet even if the Lakers come up short, it will not diminish at all O'Neal's claim for a place amongst the greats. And at the age of 28, the man mountain has a few years of his prime yet to follow, bad news for his opponents and good for the Lakers who
have him on a long-term deal. 

"He's not just satisfied with being the biggest player out there," concludes Lakers team-mate Brian Shaw. "He wants to be the most dominant. He realises that no one can stop him."  

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