Shaquille O'Neal was too smart to be painted into a verbal corner.
The Los Angeles Lakers centre was asked yesterday if teammate Kobe Bryant's confidence in himself sometimes hurts the club, with Bryant taking multiple outside shots rather than repeatedly feeding the ball to Shaq down low.
"That's sort of a trick question and I don't have a trick answer," Shaq said. "Next question, please."
Then Shaq smiled.
"You're not going to get me with that question today, buddy," Shaq said, prompting laughter. "I'm a veteran at this, buddy. Can't get me with that, not today."
It was a funny exchange. But when you think about it, it's really indicative of a bizarre situation, with the Lakers down 3-1 to the Detroit Pistons heading into Game 5 of the NBA final tonight at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Shaq knows something. The reporters know something. Both sides know that the other side knows something. And yet it isn't talked about openly between the two sides, the communication coming with hints and nudges and winks.
So here's what everyone is aching to say: As great a player as Bryant is, he's selfish. He doesn't defer to Shaq, even when circumstances scream for it.
Early in Game 4 on Sunday, Shaq was an unstoppable, angry monster. But by the end of the night, Bryant had taken 25 shots and made eight, while Shaq had taken only 21 shots, despite making 16. Predictably, the Lakers lost again.
Now, that isn't all Kobe's fault. And quite frankly, Shaq never thinks he gets the ball enough, even when he takes it home and snuggles with it.
"I'd put it more on the rest of us," said the Lakers' Rick Fox, whose club has not had anyone besides Shaq and Kobe score in double figures in this series. "We've had so much success with Kobe being Kobe."
Fair enough, but when Bryant admitted he's trying to "shoot through" his so-called slump, eyebrows were raised.
Of course, if it weren't for Kobe, this series would be over. Bryant's three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in Game 2 forced overtime, where the Lakers dominated to secure their only win.
But while the philosophical and personal differences among Shaq, Kobe and coach Phil Jackson were minor irritants when the Lakers were winning three titles in a row, now the club literally is drifting apart. All you had to do was watch the Lakers as they arrived at the Palace for practice yesterday to understand that.
Karl Malone walked from the bus to the locker room by himself. Gary Payton sauntered along with a supremely sour look as he yakked on his cell phone. Shaq walked in with his left arm draped around Fox.
Then, at least 15 minutes after his teammates left him alone, Kobe finally vacated his sanctuary on the bus after being informed it was his turn in the interview room.
These Lakers aren't exactly a Band of Brothers, you know?
The thing is, they still have the two most talented players in the final, so it's unwise to write them off entirely.
"I'm telling you right now, we'll win (Game 5)," Bryant said on Sunday. Asked yesterday about that promise, Bryant replied, "I promised? I'll go with that, man."
Shaq knows what has to be done if the Lakers want to send the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6 and, possibly, 7.
"We've been playing a certain style all year, and sometimes I get the ball, sometimes I don't," Shaq said. "But when I'm not double-teamed, I really expect to get the ball a lot.
"It is simple. And if you don't stick to simplicity, you'll die a horrible death."
Unlike Kobe's promise, Shaq's words sounded like a threat.