Published November 20, 2014
CHICAGO (AP) — It's not easy to fade into the crowd when you're 7-foot-1, 325 pounds, and your name is Shaquille O'Neal.
Yet, "The Big Aristotle" has been "The Big Invisible" the past two games for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After a solid playoff opener against the Chicago Bulls, O'Neal has just 14 points and 11 rebounds in limited minutes over the past two games.
To that, the Cavaliers said, give the big man some time. After all, he missed the final 23 regular-season games because of a torn ligament in his right thumb.
"I'm not concerned," LeBron James said. "I think we know we need him to pick up his play and he knows that also. No matter who you are — no matter if you're the best player in the world — if you have an eight-week layoff, it's definitely going to take a toll on you to start. But we're looking for him to try to be productive as much as he can with that layoff, be a force in the interior and help us win these games."
The Cavaliers are bent on delivering Cleveland its first pro sports championship since 1964, and they're a good bet to do just that after going a league-best 61-21.
If they're going to get by the Bulls, though, they'll have to work for it.
With a chance to go up 3-0 in their first-round series, the Cavaliers fell behind by 21 in Game 3 on Thursday and lost 108-106 after pulling within one in the closing seconds.
"I think right now we should be really confident, really loose," Chicago's Joakim Noah said. "I like our chances."
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, vowed to put forth a better effort at the start in Game 4 on Sunday and do a better job on Derrick Rose, who's averaging 27.3 points after scoring 31 on Thursday. James even said some adversity could be a good thing, considering they swept their way to the Eastern Conference finals last year before losing to Orlando.
Even so, they're in good position.
James is averaging 34.3 points after scoring 40 and then 39 the past two games, although he was whistled for a charge and stripped late in Thursday's game.
As for O'Neal?
Well, he's been quiet since the opener and did not make himself available for comment on Friday.
"I've got to get him more involved," coach Mike Brown said.
At 38 and a 15-time All-Star, O'Neal may be past his prime, but he can still be a force. He played well during the regular season, averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds in 53 games and helped the Cavaliers go 4-1 against the Magic and Lakers — two big championship obstacles and two teams that have given them trouble in the past — with him in the lineup.
Against the Bulls, O'Neal was solid in the opener with 12 points and five rebounds in about 25 minutes. In Game 2, he had eight points and seven boards in 15 minutes and delivered six and four while playing 20 minutes in Game 3, although Brown insisted he could have scored more.
"He had great looks last night, but it just popped out," Brown said. "But those will go down as the series goes on. He's going to be a factor for us, a big factor for us. A big factor. So I've got to do a better job trying to find some minutes for him."
Brown said there are no physical limitations, that the Cavaliers can push O'Neal "as hard as we want to push him."
"Obviously, he hasn't played in a while," Brown said. "We're not giving him consistent minutes right now so he may still have a little bit of rust on him, but right now, he's good to go for as long as we need him."
The Cavaliers were eyeing a championship when they made the offseason trade with Phoenix, hoping O'Neal could help them get by Dwight Howard and the Magic and, ultimately, capture the title.
At the moment, Brown is having a tough time working Shaq back into the rotation.
"If I feel like if there's a group out there that's playing well and he's not part of that group, I'll let that group run," Brown said. "I'll let a group that's playing well run for as long as they can before making changes so I'm not going to get him out on the floor if I think it's going to hurt the team. But I need to try to figure out ways to get him some longer stretches on the court."
NOTES: James reiterated that he should not have been called for a charge late in Thursday's game. "I think I was in the right," he said. "There's a lot of fines going on in the league right now. I like my money. My family likes my money, too, so I'll hold onto it." James charged into Luol Deng with 1:18 remaining, negating a basket. ... James also is amused when he hears opposing crowds chant "MVP! MVP!" for one of the home team's players, as Chicago fans did for Rose in Game 3. "It's an all-league thing these days," he said. "Everyone's an MVP when they get to the free throw line." ... Bulls backup G Acie Law was helped off the court after suffering an apparent ankle or Achilles tendon injury in a pickup game after practice. He has not played in the postseason.
AP freelance writer Mark Perlman in Deerfield, Ill., contributed to this report.