LOS ANGELES - Shaquille O’Neal didn’t start the NBA All-Star game.
But he finished. Oh, did he finish.
O’Neal made nine dunks en route to a 24-point, 11-rebound performance that helped the Western Conference beat the East 136-132 Sunday night, and he was selected the game’s MVP.
“I said to myself, ‘If it’s going good, nobody is really shining, I’m going to go ahead and go for it.’ Third and fourth quarter, got a few dunks, scored a few buckets,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal shot 12-of-19 while playing 24 minutes in relief of Houston’s Yao Ming, who was pretty good himself with 16 points in 19 minutes.
Yao started at center for the West after edging O’Neal in fan balloting.
“It didn’t really inspire me,” O’Neal said of Yao’s fast start. “He hit some shots. But I knew that if I could get it going and do what I do, I knew that I was going to be fine.
“Luckily, things worked out in my favor.”
O’Neal was the co-MVP of the 2000 game with San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, who made a short bank shot over Jamaal Magloire with 26.1 seconds left to give the West a 133-132 lead and trigger a 5-0 game-ending run by the winners.
After Duncan’s big shot, O’Neal shadowed Tracy McGrady, forcing the Orlando star into a turnover.
“Can you dig it! Can you dig it!” O’Neal told the hometown fans after receiving the MVP award.
“It feels pretty good,” he said later. “I’m not really one to be taking over All-Star games.”
O’Neal also thrilled the fans by making like a point guard on a couple occasions. He dribbled the length of the court and slammed in his eighth dunk for a 126-123 lead.
His final dunk with 1:56 to play tied it at 129.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said. “A couple of people told me if I get it, there’s an opening, they want me to go coast-to-coast. A couple of times, I had a couple openings. A couple of times, I didn’t finish them, but the one in the fourth quarter, I crossed (McGrady) up at half and it was a big hole and I just took it.”
The taller West, with five 7-footers to none for the East — entered as a solid favorite, but had all it could handle in a game neither team led by more than nine points.
The East got its final point on a free throw by McGrady with 37 seconds left for a 132-131 lead.
The West has won four of the last five All-Star games after losing three straight.
The 31-year-old O’Neal has been slowed much of the season by a strained left calf, but he showed no ill effects in this game, perhaps a good sign for the struggling Lakers entering the season’s second half.
O’Neal, the self-proclaimed MDE — most dominant ever — has been chosen to play in 11 All-Star games.
Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ other All-Star, scored 20 points in 36 minutes after arriving late and missing the team picture. Nobody else on either team played more than 29 minutes.
“LA traffic,” he replied when asked about being late.
Bryant also didn’t appear to be slowed by his recent injuries — a sprained right shoulder he hurt Jan. 12 and a severe cut on his right index finger sustained Jan. 29.
“I feel fine, I feel as healthy as I’ve been in a long time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to practice tomorrow and starting the second half of the season.
“It’s always fun to come to the All-Star game. Nowadays with all the hoopla, you kind of lose sight of the game itself. There was a lot of energy, hardly any defense early.
“It was a nail-biter at the end. It was a good show.”
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