Thanks to a sudden, unexplained and almost certainly temporary change in the Mysterious Definition of Just What, Exactly, Constitutes a Foul in the NBA, we were treated to a vision of what might have been for Shaquille O'Neal during the Miami Heat's loss to the New Jersey Nets in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series Monday night.
O'Neal, we've been told for the last decade and a half, is the hardest guy to referee in the history of the league. He's so big and strong that his very existence creates contact, nay, mayhem, in the low post.
A foul could be called on every play, officials and commentators have always said, and it's almost impossible to tell who should get the whistle. Shaq, who knocks people around like bowling pins just by moving his massive frame in traffic? Or the defenders, who are usually not set when they get broadsided by the Big Diesel, and in the meantime are busy hacking and clawing at him anyway?
This argument ignores the fact that a foul could also be called on every play that doesn't involve Shaq, since this is the NBA, where a bone-rattling collision can be a no-call while the most tender of touches can get a whistle.
This has led to the Great Shaq Debate. Well, maybe not a great debate, but it's certainly given his detractors a leg to stand on. Is Shaq a historically dominant big man with a rare set of skills, or is he just a big lummox who'd have been a stiff, riding the pine with constant foul trouble, if the refs called his games correctly?
In typically annoying fashion, I've always taken a third position on that question.
I believe the refs copped out from Day 1, a day when O'Neal played for Orlando, fade haircuts were in style and -- get this, kids -- Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston were singers.
The Shaq we know, the Shaq of havoc in the paint and a foul on every play, wouldn't have existed if the officials simply called the fouls they saw. He'd have adjusted his game, played without fouling and become the same great player, only without the undertow of criticism that he'd be nothing without the refs' help.
But the refs didn't do that. They decided to reinvent the rules when Shaq was playing.
Why? Who knows. Referees are mysterious creatures. Maybe the league told them to swallow their whistles and let Shaq play. Maybe they were confused by this most unusual player or afraid that calling the fouls they saw would result in thousands of whistles per game -- something that doesn't seem to bother any basketball referee I've ever known.
Maybe it was because the cat entrails and tea leaves arranged themselves just so at the Summer 1993 refs' sabbath, but for whatever reason, it was decided that Shaq could swing those big elbows with impunity -- except, randomly, this being the NBA, when he couldn't.
On Monday night, though, it wasn't random. A minute and a half into the game, O'Neal, backing in on the left block, turned into Jason Collins of the Nets, bumping into him with his shoulder as he held the ball high. Whistle: Foul on Shaq, the proper call, the very one that's pretty much never made.
This being the NBA, we could chalk it up to randomness and forget about it.
Oh, but not on this night.
Midway through the first quarter, same play. This time, there was almost no contact, and Shaq got the whistle again. And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
The Mysterious Definition of Just What, Exactly, Constitutes a Foul in the NBA had changed!
At long last, Shaq would be treated like every other player. His fouls would be called fouls. What would he do? How would he react without his crutch of being able to foul at will?
Well, first he had to go sit on the bench for the rest of the quarter, but the first time he touched the ball in the second quarter, there he was on the low block, backing down his defender, this time Clifford Robinson. He faked to the inside and spun quickly to the baseline.
He held the ball chest high. His elbows were in.
No foul was committed and no foul was called. In fact, Robinson, beaten, got called for a standard-issue, run-of-the-mill hack on the arm as O'Neal went up for his shot, though that foul was pretty ticky-tack.
I always figured it would take Shaq a year or two to adjust if the NBA refs had done their job from the start and called his fouls properly, since he'd gotten the same free ride in college and, I presume, in high school.
By the available evidence, it would have taken him about 40 seconds.
The rest of the way, he scored 20 points in 24 minutes on 6-of-12 shooting, with 10 rebounds, three fouls and one turnover. Pretty good for a guy who'd have been a stiff without the refs' help.
So how will the refs call Shaq's next game?
Ah, my children, you ask questions that cannot be answered.
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State of the NBA: Doug Collins not whining [PERMALINK]
The NBA's product has improved measurably in the last few years. Teams are scoring more and playing at a faster tempo, thanks to some smart rule tweaks and just the ebb and flow of playing styles and coaching fashions.
But you know how you can really tell how much the game has improved? Doug Collins isn't whining anymore.
The TNT analyst and former NBA star and coach has a tendency to bellyache when the quality of play is subpar. He must have really been fun to play for.
But when things are going well, he's a sharp observer who keeps the viewer apprised of defensive matchups and what various situations or substitutions might mean in the coming minutes.
Things are going well lately, and they went particularly well Monday night in the Phoenix Suns' wildly entertaining 130-123 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their second-round series. Working with Kevin Harlan, Collins was in fine fettle, raving about Clippers point guard of the future Shaun Livingston and generally enjoying himself as the Suns and Clips set the tone for what should be a fantastic series, scoring points like it was 1975.
TNT, as I've said before, does the best job of any of the three networks that cover the NBA. It does go off into weird-camera-angle land every once in a while, but it tends to bunch the arty shots together, four or five wacky angles right in a row, then puts them away for an hour or two. If it has to be done, that's the best way to do it, I guess.
Also, TNT needs to stop covering up game action with those little animated promos for "The Closer" or whatever other show it wants to promote.
Look, TV people: We viewers have ceded the bottom 10 percent or so of the screen. You can put your bugs and logos there, run your crawl with a news feed and some show promos, whatever. We don't care.
And when time is out, you can have the whole screen. If we're watching in real time we've probably switched over to another game, and if we've recorded the game we're fast-forwarding. Knock yourselves out.
But when Jason Kidd is dribbling along the perimeter looking for an opening, you may not have Kyra Sedgwick walk onto the screen, obliterating half of the picture, including Kidd and the ball.
We viewers put up with a lot, but we have to draw the line somewhere, and that seems like a pretty good place to draw it.
Once again, TV execs, your rule of thumb: Show us the game.
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