Rockets Cool Off Heat, 96-71Dwyane Wade picked up where he left off in the 2006 NBA Finals, but the rest of the Miami Heat looked lethargic in a 96-71 preseason loss to the Houston Rockets. The game was televised by ESPN and played before a sparse Miami crowd; apparently, there are other things to do in South Beach besides going to a preseason NBA game--who knew? Wade finished with a game-high 26 points in 32 minutes on 11-17 field goal shooting but the rest of the Heat shot only 16-47 (.340) from the field; no other Heat player managed to even reach double figures--Shaquille O'Neal had nine points (in 22 minutes) as he shot just 3-8 from both the field and the free throw line. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 19 points in 31 minutes, but he shot only 6-18 from the field, 1-6 on three pointers and 6-11 from the free throw line. He had no trouble creating open shots for himself and his floor game looked good (five assists, four rebounds), but for whatever reason he was not making shots that he normally hits--his patented elbow jumper and pullup three pointers from the wing. Yao Ming had 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots in 32 minutes.
Neither team shot particularly well from the field (.444 for Houston, .422 for Miami) but Houston made nine three pointers and 23 free throws compared to four and 13 respectively for Miami. The Heat actually were ahead 21-20 after the first quarter, but Houston took a small lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Houston had a 42-36 halftime lead despite Wade's 18 points on 7-11 field goal shooting. The Rockets really poured it on in the third quarter, pushing the margin to 63-45 when the Heat went through a stretch in which they missed 12 of their 15 field goal attempts. Of course, as I mentioned in my previous post, the preseason means different things to different teams, a point that ESPN's Tim Legler brought up during the halftime show. Miami is the reigning NBA champion and has made no major personnel moves; the Heat just want to stay healthy, get their players in shape and prepare for the long 82 game grind of the regular season. The Rockets, on the other hand, have made a lot of changes and did not make the playoffs last year, so it is important that they develop on court chemistry before the season begins. About the only second half drama, such as it was, came at the 2:07 mark in the third quarter when Miami's Alonzo Mourning was ejected after receiving his second technical foul; he got his first one much earlier in the game for arguing a call and the one that led to his automatic ejection was issued when he punched the ball into the crowd in frustration after Houston scored to take a 67-48 lead.
While the game was basically a snoozer, there was an interesting second quarter exchange between ESPN commentators John Saunders and Jon Barry--a broadcasting rookie who just retired from the NBA--about O'Neal's well documented struggles at the free throw line. Barry did not discuss how O'Neal rebuffed his father's offer to help him shoot free throws more accurately and actually sympathized with the Diesel, saying that viewers at home should grab a softball and try to shoot free throws with it to get an idea of what it is like to shoot free throws when you are as big as Shaq. Saunders mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain shot poorly from the free throw line; it should be added that Chamberlain's rival Bill Russell also shot a low percentage, although for some reason that is not brought up nearly as often as Chamberlain's numbers are (Chamberlain shot .511, Russell shot .561 and O'Neal has shot .528 for his career). OK, so it seems like there is a pattern here of dominant big men who win championships despite not shooting well from the free throw line--but then Barry, who was a teammate of O'Neal's for one year, added that O'Neal routinely made 17 or 18 of 20 from the free throw line during practice. Barry went on to say that O'Neal might feel self conscious at the free throw line during games (something that some observers also felt applied to Chamberlain). Now we have a mystery on our hands, but I don't think we need Sherlock Holmes to solve it--even Inspector Gadget can figure out that if O'Neal consistently makes most of his free throws during practice (the same thing was also said of Chamberlain) then the size of his hands has nothing to do with him missing them during games; Inspector Gadget might even say "Go, go Gadget arms," grab an NBA Register and note that Russell was basically the same size as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, that Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-footer who shoots free throws well and that Yao Ming's 7-5 stature has not stopped him from shooting .812 from the free throw line during his NBA career. The simple truth is that O'Neal, like Chamberlain and Russell, has been able to be successful despite being a poor free throw shooter. I doubt that any of these three "made them when they count" (as Shaq alleges that he does) at a greater rate than they made them during the rest of the game and, in any case, if you make them early then maybe the game isn't close enough for them to "count" in the end.
One thing that is very interesting about O'Neal's free throw problems is that they seem to be regarded by most people as comic relief as opposed to a flaw in his game. The reason I mention this is that O'Neal is the only dominant big man in NBA history I can think of who is genuinely beloved by fans and the media--maybe Mikan was also, but that's going back many, many years. Russell's public image has undergone quite a makeover in recent years as he has assumed an elder statesman role, but he once said that he owed the fans nothing and he didn't even show up for either his jersey retirement or his induction in the Hall of Fame (Russell had some very understandable negative feelings regarding racism in Boston and the country in general, but it is safe to say that he was hardly a beloved figure--even in the city where he won 11 championships--during his career). Chamberlain said "Nobody loves Goliath" and was often the target of criticism from fans and the media. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was widely considered to be aloof and unapproachable. O'Neal is the only dominant, multiple-championship winning big man who seems to be a widely beloved figure (I would argue that Tim Duncan is respected but not beloved, much like Pete Sampras). I'm not sure why this is or what it means, but it is interesting, because fans generally gravitate toward the perceived underdog, not a player who is literally larger than life. O'Neal is so well-liked that he not only gets a pass for his bad free throw shooting but no issue is made of the disrespectful way that he dismissed Rick Barry's offer to help him (discussed in the 20SecondTimeout post cited above). If Allen Iverson shot .500 from the free throw line and rebuffed Rick Barry's advice by saying that Barry's resume is essentially worthless, would the media and fans just ignore that? What if the player in question were Kobe Bryant?
Longtime 20SecondTimeout readers know that I generally focus my attention on what happens between the lines and not on off court issues--so why am I comparing Shaq's popularity to that of other dominant big men? Simple--in my estimation, his popularity is unique among the members of this exclusive group and it affects the way that his game/skills are evaluated and discussed. Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar all received a lot of unwarranted and unfair criticism in their day but that is no reason to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that we just ignore or dismiss a legimitate shortcoming in O'Neal's game.
Would I want Shaquille O'Neal as my franchise center despite his bad free throw shooting? Of course I would, just as I would have wanted a young Chamberlain or Russell; the advantages of having a dominant big man far outweigh the disadvantage of that big man being a bad free throw shooter--but that doesn't mean that failure at a basic fundamental of the game should be laughed off or that we should make lame excuses for O'Neal's free throw shooting or just treat it like a big joke.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM