By Reinis Lacis (@LamarMatic)
This is probably the most dominant big man stat-line in recent basketball history (and by recent basketball history I mean, what we all mean in these cases, anything up to 1985-86 as provided by basketball-reference.com), with its closest rival being a 22/22/13 game by Shawn Bradley.
Shaq battles foul difficulties (two fouls in the first seven minutes and a third mid-way through the second quarter) as the home Nets team handles Orlando in the first half. O’Neal only managed to post 6 points and 6 blocks in the first 24 minutes. However, once he manages to stay on the court, it’s over for the Nets. Shaq muscles the sluggish Orlando offense back in the game through sheer force. He ended up with 7 dunks, the highlights being two of his signature alley-oops where he puts his defender on his back with an off-ball spin move.
O’Neal, who was playing with a cold, said after the game that “it’s hard to play from city to city, where it’s 40 degrees in one and 80 degrees in the next, but you keep playing. I knew I had about 7 or 8 blocks, but I didn’t know I had 15. If we had lost, my performance wouldn’t have meant anything.”
Unfortunately, the thing I must admit is that the 15 blocks are very over-glorified and there’s a reason why even Shaq didn’t feel like he had had so many of them. O’Neal benefits from possibly three goal-tending calls not being made, two strips of the ball being charted as blocks and what simply seemed to be an overall agenda by the scorekeeper to pump up his stats. Judging by the times at which Bill Raftery and Spencer Ross update Shaq’s stat-line and the action that took place in between the last and the newest update, I wholeheartedly believe that there were at least two blocks that weren’t even there. By that I mean that there wasn’t even a Dwayne Schintzius brick which you could blame on Shaq’s pinky getting to the ball. In such cases it must have been some kind of human error which awarded Shaq with a blocked shot.
Per the previously quoted Al Harvin’s post-game recap for The New York Times, the late Chuck Daly not only argued that the proper goaltending calls weren’t made, but also disagreed with the scorekeeper on some of the so-called blocks. Daly’s criticism only encourages me to stand by my case and look at it more closely.
So let’s go through them block-by-block..
Bill Raftery pleads for a goal-tending call both times and the broadcast crew even gives us seemingly conclusive evidence by replaying the second play:
That looks like a ball clearly on its way down. Moreover, what bothers me even more about these two plays is that they set the tone and O’Neal’s mindset for the rest of the game. He tried to go up and slap nearly everything out of sight, which made for some fundamentally flawed defensive plays on the occasions when he wasn’t able to reject his opponent.
A solid one-on-one block on Benoit Benjamin and a slap that seemingly misdirects a Rumeal Robinson floater follows these two up as we have our first two legal blocks of the game. It’s worth noting that the block on Robinson consists of the same late leap by O’Neal which is perfectly-timed and not overly exaggerated this time around.
Shaq’s standing reach over the back of Armen Gilliam qualified as another block and I could at least head into halftime thinking that I got all of them, goal-tends or not. However, the Nets announcing team started the second half dropping some statistical tidbits. It turns out O’Neal was already at six blocks.
Re-watching the first half made me conclude that I hadn’t missed an actual blocked shot. What I could do was put forward my best guesses as to what could have qualified as a block. The best option is this horrible miss by Dwayne Schintzius. Obviously, I can’t claim to have a better angle of the play than the scorekeeper had when watching the game from a digitized bad quality VHS recording (maybe Shaq did indeed touch the ball), however, this one seems like a stretch (as no other plays were even remotely creditable as blocks by O’Neal). This one could be right out of the 90s scorekeeper book of juicing the stats (to put it shortly, a scorekeeper admitted to Deadspin that 90s NBA stats are not completely accurate and from the hundreds of games I’ve watched and charted I don’t have a reason to not believe him). Schintzius misses badly and Shaq was right by to contest it? Blocked shot.
First half: Three blocks, two probable goal-tends (fair to argue that at least one of the two wouldn’t be called by a referee in an NBA game) and one obscure block.
The second half starts off with the first mid-air strip of the ball, which is counted as a block (and I know this since Shaq was credited with one steal and it clearly was recorded on a play on the other side of the court late in the fourth quarter) and leaves the poor Derrick Coleman with a sprained ankle.
Here we’d be arguing semantics. Did Derrick Coleman jump to shoot the ball? Yes. Did O’Neal prevent that shot from happening by putting his hand on the ball? Yes. However, he also maintained contact with the ball throughout the play and ended up with it in his hands. The Hornets’ Al Jefferson actually will earn a block or two in the boxscore thanks to his swipes at the ball as well. I’ll disagree and call this a steal.
The block is followed up by a chaotic sequence which ends in P.J. Brown hobbling the ball (due to Nick Anderson’s efforts) on a lay-up attempt. With Shaq miraculously getting to 11 blocks during this quarter, I suspect that his could be a play on which the scorekeeper made a mistake and credited Shaq with a defensive play.
Swiping the ball (in the exact same fashion) from Benoit Benjamin’s hands get us to block number eight (and the second “steal, not a real block”). While Kenny Anderson gets another one of his lay-ups swatted away in what appears to be a play which Chuck Daly wasn’t pleased with.
The best I can tell (and force VLC to freeze) is that Shaq actually caught this one before it reached a downward motion.
But, hey, according to the scorer’s table, we’ve reached the point I mentioned before as Shaquille already has a triple double, one of 11 blocks no less. Again, I have to do my best at finding shaky plays which could be interpreted as blocks. This time there should be two of them. My suspicions are that someone could have messed up on that a fore-mentioned P.J. Brown scrum. But to find another one? Seemingly impossible.
Triple Double with 11 Blocks Update: Four blocks (counting the last goal-tendish one as a legit one), two probable goal-tends, two steal-blocks and already three obscure blocks.
The New York Times recap stated that “O’Neal blocked three shots by Gilliam in the last 7:15” (hold that thought) and sure enough I see the first one right at the 7:15 mark, a real vicious take-down of the late power forward.
I’m disappointed to learn that we should already be at number 13 and that this bad field goal attempt by Gilliam is this quarter’s horrible-Schintzius-miss. Hard to see how Shaq could have blocked this one, but yet again it looks like the best candidate as Shaq is right there to contest a brick of a shot.
Sure enough, the remaining two blocks against Gilliam (mentioned in the recap) are there. One is quite visible, while the other one turns out to be total bullshit. O’Neal crushes an already loose ball in the ground as if he was this clumsy high school kid whose only advantage is his height, which he overuses to his detriment by chasing spectacular blocks. This play was moreso made on the initial strip of the ball, rather than when Shaq slapped the ball a half-second afterward.
The Total 15 Blocks for the Game: Six blocks, two probable goal-tends, two steal-blocks, one incorrectly awarded block and four obscure blocks.
Verdict: Shaquille O’Neal supposedly blocked ten shots in this game and probably should have been called for a goal-tending violation on one of them. You can make a case that two of the blocked shots were actually steals, but I imagine that at that point the scorekeeper was too excited by seeing O’Neal’s totals accumulating.
I’ll add a manual and absolutely crappy human error-rate prediction by saying that I might have missed one blocked shot, although I’ve rewound the game so many times that I now kind of never want to see it again (or, perhaps, a small fragment of it is missing from this copy of the broadcast, although it seemingly isn’t the case). So at best there was an eleventh block somewhere.