Thursday Morning Sketches: Where We'll Always Remember the Diesel Fondly

ESPN LOS ANGELES: The Los Angeles Lakers plan to honor their former self-proclaimed Superman, Shaquille O'Neal, by raising his No. 34 jersey to the rafters. "We don't have any specific timetable on this, but you can be assured we will retire Shaq's jersey," said Lakers spokesman John Black in an email on Wednesday. O'Neal, 39, revealed his retirement earlier Wednesday using the new social media tool Tout, a real-time video messaging service, to announce to fans: "We did it. Nineteen years baby. I want to thank you very much, that's why I'm telling you first, I'm about to retire. Love you, talk to you soon."


SB NATION: Shaq was almost a perfect response to Michael Jordan, the reigning hegemon whose NBA welcomed O'Neal in 1992. Where Jordan was psychotically determined and polished, Shaq was often goofy and darling. Nothing mattered more than basketball for MJ, and it showed, even when he made movies with Looney Tunes. For Shaq? Basketball was a piece of him. Basketball was the day job -- a day job he did seem to love and that he was obviously incredible at. But just a piece. We sit at the end of a long, gold-encrusted 19-year career, and we know now basketball was just a piece of Shaq. Imagine how we'll see it in another decade, when O'Neal's run through another dozen projects.



PRO BASKETBALL TALK: In a league where often players treat basketball like a desk job, where the players practice speaking in clichés like out of Bull Durham, where the media can take itself too seriously, where there is a wall between players and fans (and media), Shaq broke all that down. This is hoops, it isn’t Navy Seals storming an armed compound in the Middle East. This should be fun. Shaq’s persona was the counterbalance to Michael Jordan in the 1990s. You played practical jokes on teammates, and laughed with them. You tweet with fans (social media was made for Shaq and is part of his legacy). You just show up and pretend to be a statue and let fans come out and hang out with you. Or you conduct the Boston POPS! Or you ride the subway dressed like a woman. He was a big kid who got to play a game for a living, and why shouldn’t he love that? Why shouldn’t practice have some jokes, why shouldn’t the locker room have laughter? And we were all along for the ride.



HEAT INDEX: James is on a tear. With jumpers, dunks and drives, James has almost single-handedly shut the door on every opponent he's faced this season. Heading into the playoffs, clutch shooting remained one of few stains on his resume and in a month's time, he's done everything in his power to wipe that clean. Here are the numbers: In clutch time (final five minutes of the game, score margin within five points) during the 2010-11 playoffs, James has shot 15-for-31 (48.2 percent) from the floor and 5-for-10 from downtown. How good is that? Consider that the average field goal percentage in clutch time stands at a lowly 39.2 percent during the playoffs and the conversion rate from beyond the arc checks out at just 25.8 percent.


HOT HOT HOOPS: And in the days leading up to the start of the NBA Finals, those same pundits went back to the infamous Bump-gate controversy that occurred in a Heat game against the Dallas Mavericks that dropped Miami to 9-8 on the season. Remember Spo saying that his team had a different timetable than everyone else had? Remember all that talk of “the process?” Remember when Spo talked about not letting go of the proverbial rope? No one questions those statements as mere coach speak now. Spo has the Heat playing their best basketball of the season, consistently closing out games in the fourth quarters during this playoff run. The Heat hold a 1-0 lead on the Mavericks in the NBA Finals, due in large part to some great tactical moves from Spo, who will probably never get the credit he deserves.


THE BASKETBALL JONES (note: this is a GREAT piece, and really helped me sort out how I've been feeling about the Heat): How can you argue against LeBron James when he’s been the best basketball player in the playoffs? You can love him, hate him, argue against his loyalty, question his legacy and absolutely despise his arrogance and comfort level now that he’s in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at his sides. That doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan of basketball, you can’t hate LeBron’s game. You just can’t. You don’t have to like the player, but you can’t hate his game. Those three-pointers to finish the third quarter, the dunk that was directed at every single one of us who doubted, the defense that finally has LeBron playing like the player we all wanted him to be? It’s glorious. No hyperbole. I mean that.


THE POINT FORWARD: The rebounding was a problem, the space to shoot was tighter and the Heat blew the doors open by scoring 10 points on just four possessions during the game’s decisive run. But until that run started 44 minutes into the game, Dallas played the sort of game it needs to — especially on defense — to win this series. It held Miami below 40 percent shooting, kept the Heat from feasting at the foul line and maintained a low turnover rate. Miami kills you in transition and at the line, and if you want to beat the Heat, you have to limit at least one of those areas. Dallas managed to do both and still lost, which is either a horrible sign or a positive to take to Game 2.


THE TWO MAN GAME: Udonis Haslem and the Heat’s double teamers did a credible job defending Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 7-18 FG, eight rebounds) by playing passing lanes and limiting Dirk’s attempts. In terms of challenging, the Heat defenders can only do so much; Haslem and Joel Anthony just don’t have the height or length to really alter Nowitzki’s shot, which leaves their means of defending him a bit more reliant on prevention. Anthony couldn’t quite pull that off, but Haslem — with help from Mike Miller and others — was able to put enough pressure on Nowitzki to make him pass out of doubles and rush through many of his possessions against single coverage. Nowitzki needs to get settled in, but Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to maintain a static approach against Dirk; he may see the same basic defensive look in Game 2, but the specifics of its implementations (the timing of the double, etc.) will likely change. Nowitzki was able to adjust and attack, but he may have to start that process all over again in Game 2.


RIDICULOUS UPSIDE: One of the more interesting workouts happening today (Wednesday) will be located in Waltham, Mass., as the Boston Celtics workout a slew of big men with the ability to stretch the floor. The Celtics will workout VCU's Jamie Skeen, Wisconsin's Jon Leuer, Old Dominion's Frank Hassell, Temple's Lavoy Allen, Richmond's Justin Harper and Oakland's Keith Benson according to the Boston Herald. Butler's Matt Howard -- who isn't currently projected to be selected later this month according to every 2011 NBA mock draft worth reading -- was also scheduled to be in attendance for the Celtics' first pre-daft workout, but he's apparently decided not to ship up to Boston. "A lot of times the guys you are interested in don't come in for a workout," Celtics president Danny Ainge told the Herald. "When you pick at (No.) 25, sometimes the guys you like think they are going higher."


ESPN: Ricky Rubio is coming to Minnesota after all. The Spanish point guard has agreed to join the Timberwolves next season, ending a drawn-out, delicate, two-year negotiation with the team that had many league observers believing he did not want to play in Minnesota. A person with knowledge of the agreement confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday night that Rubio will be here next season, given the woebegone Timberwolves a much-needed dose of good news. The person requested anonymity because neither Rubio nor the Timberwolves planned to make an official announcement while he continues to play for Regal Barcelona in the Spanish league playoffs.

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