Imagine this . . .

What if O'Neal worea Wolves' uniform?

MINNEAPOLIS -- Flip Saunders was asked to name the best big man he's had on his roster during his 10-year tenure as Timberwolves coach.

"You mean a true big man?''

No, I mean an elf on stilts. Of course I mean a true big man.

Saunders, usually quick with his answers, thought long and hard.


"Or do you mean a forward that we used as a center?''

I thought it was a simple query. But Saunders clearly was stumped.

"Probably Christian Laettner,'' he said.

Flip, Laettner was a forward that you stuck in the middle for a while.

"Well, he was 6-11. If you're looking for a true center …''

; In the interest of time, I'll answer for him: The Timberwolves never have had an above-average, two-way center. The doughnut franchise, with the big hole in the middle, has been cursed when it comes to big men. If they ever put together a video history of their centers, it will be called "Stiffs on Parade.''

"The best defensive center we've had was Andrew Lang,'' he said. "Lang was a true defensive-type center …''

; Forget it. Apparently, it was a trick question. Like the square root of pi, there is no correct answer.


This came up before the Timberwolves took on the Miami Heat and Shaquille O'Neal on Tuesday night. The team that never has had a true center was playing a team with the best center of his generation. Irony dripped all over the place.

Here's an easier question: What if you woke up one morning and Shaquille O'Neal was on your team.

"It would be like Christmas,'' Saunders said.

Without the fruitcake.

"He has the ability to turn it up still,'' Saunders said. "To dominate stretches of games, whole games.''

Tuesday, Shaq turned it up pretty well. He finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots -- all with a gimpy hamstring. Unfortunately, his teammates didn't display much fire on the court. Walking through their assignments at times, the Heat lost 108-97.

The competition wasn't as close as the score. This one was a blowout.

"They've always been a team that hustles and plays hard,'' Shaq said of the Timberwolves. "Tonight, they played with a little more effort than we did.''


Or, as frustrated coach Stan Van Gundy put it: "There has to be some will out there. They beat us to every loose ball. We need a lot of work.''

The Wolves used four different men against Shaq with varied levels of success defensively. Offensively, no center even thinks of shooting against him. If he does suffer a temporary lapse of judgment, he'll find the ball swatted away like a mosquito -- the way Michael Olowokandi did in the third quarter.

It's kind of embarrassing.

But half of the battle already is won. The Heat play the Wolves exactly once more this season. The only way they can meet in the playoffs is in the NBA Finals.

Last year, Shaq's Los Angeles Lakers faced the Timberwolves 10 times -- four times during the regular season and six times in the playoffs. Now that he is in the East, he will be a relative stranger to these parts.

That's good for the self-esteem of the current Minnesota centers. The less they see of him the better.

Tom Tom Powers is a sports columnist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His column is distributed by Knight Ridder Newspapers.

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