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It's time to give Shaq his due

It's time to truly appreciate Shaquille O'Neal. Not simply gawk at his enormous build or adore his public persona or bash his sometimes rudimentary game, but genuinely appreciate what the giant has accomplished.

The Miami behemoth will make his sixth — and probably last — appearance in the NBA Finals this week, hoping to capture his fourth championship by leading the Heat past the Dallas Mavericks, who ousted Phoenix on Saturday night.

O'Neal, 34, has now reached as many finals as Michael Jordan. A stat that in no way leads to a comparison, but simply points out the enormous success O'Neal has enjoyed.

While Jordan achieved his glory in Chicago with Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen always there, O'Neal has constantly shuffled the deck.

In his 14th NBA season, O'Neal is bringing his third franchise to the Finals. He's done it with different sidekicks — Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and, now, Dwyane Wade — and a revolving door of role players. He's done it with three different head coaches.

And even though Shaq, recognized as one of the league's 50 greatest players in 1996, is no longer the most dominant force in the game, the big fella with a zillion nicknames is still more than capable. In Friday night's series-clinching victory against Detroit, it was Shaq, and not a flu-ridden Wade, who carried the Heat. Shaq scored 28 points on 12-of-14 shooting and had 16 rebounds.

Clearly, he can summon the energy in his increasingly ailing body for one more title sprint.

And that might be it.

Miami surrounded Shaq and Wade with a veteran cast this season and this NBA Finals. Win or lose, it's unlikely all the supporting actors will return next year. Sure Wade, a dynamo and emerging star, will be better, but Shaq will be another year older and the 7-foot-1, 325-pounder already isn't aging particularly well.

He averaged 20.0 points per game this season, the lowest total of his career. He averaged 9.2 rebounds per game, the first time in his career he hasn't pulled down at least 10.4 per contest. His blocks and minutes played were down; his fouls up.

This is the reason the Los Angeles Lakers, when forced to decide between Bryant and Shaq in a very public, very ugly dispute, chose Kobe. Kobe has plenty of good seasons left in

him. Any sane organization would have made the same decision.

But the Heat, too, knew what they were getting — an aging superstar who had two, maybe three, good years left.

Last season, the Heat fell in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. This year, Miami got over that hump.

Now Shaq will try to get ring No. 4 — and his first without Kobe. A championship at this point of his career might be his most cherished.

The league Shaq hopes to rule one more time is not the same league he entered.

Dominant big men are less in demand than ever, perhaps because there are fewer of them than ever. The Suns and Mavericks — and a host of other teams — are proving you can win by playing small ball, in which quickness and athleticism matter more than height. The league is moving away from its pound-it-inside past. Today's big men, preferably, should be able to handle the ball and shoot the mid-range jumper.

In that game, Shaq is a relic. He's always used his incredible bulk to bully opponents out of his way. His free-throw shooting troubles are well documented. His abilities outside of the lane nearly non-existent.

If not always admired for his basketball skills, Shaq has always been liked. His loquacious nature. His child-like smile. His quips. His nicknames. His generosity. His superhero-like stature. It's all worked.

So now is the time for him to be appreciated, before he becomes one of those over-the-hill big men at the end of a bench somewhere or a law enforcement agent, another of his many passions.

The most unstoppable force in the game — perhaps in its history — when he was young and healthy, Shaq has entered the twilight of his career.

It would be a shame if it went dark without the big man ever getting the appreciation he deserves.

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