When Shaquille O'Neal showed up to his first day of training camp with the Celtics back in September, one of the first questions he was asked by the Boston media was about his long-standing rivalry with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had just beaten Boston to win another championship, and Kobe had been all too quick to remind the world that he "just got one more than Shaq."
Shaq's response was a little surprising.
"Yeah, I heard it," the Celtic newcomer answered. "But I'd have been more upset and more hurt if Tim Duncan had made that comment. I don't compete with guards. They have the ball more than I do and they shoot way, way more than I do. I can't compete with guards. So I'm only competing with Tim Duncan."
Let's fast forward six months.
The competition between Shaq and Duncan has been an intriguing one this season — not only because their respective teams have led their respective conferences practically from wire to wire, but also because various injuries have taken their toll on both aging big men.
O'Neal's had it bad. Of the Celtics' first 69 games this season, he's played in only 36 of them. He's battled various ailments of the hip, calf and knee all year, and for the last two months, the problem has been an inflamed Achilles that's healed surprisingly slowly.
But Shaq is on the way back from his injuries – he could play for the Celtics as early as this week. His health problems are ending, while Duncan's are just getting started.
The Spurs' legendary big man is currently on crutches — he sprained his left ankle in a win Monday over Golden State, and the team doesn't yet have a timetable for his return. Duncan's team has faced very little adversity all season, but that might change now.
The two big men are both getting on in years — Duncan turns 35 years old next month, while Shaq recently hit 39. But they're both still very relevant, and their health could swing the balance in the race for the NBA title this spring.
Shaq's competing with Duncan for a reason. Together, the two of them have dominated the NBA landscape for a decade. Duncan has won four rings in San Antonio, Shaq has four as well, three with the Lakers and one with the Heat. Between 1999 and 2007, every single NBA Finals included one of the two men. Like it or not, you're witnessing the Shaq and Duncan Era.
Both men have had banged-up regular seasons, but they'll both have to turn it on when the playoffs roll around. In Shaq's case, you have to assume he'll be ready when the time comes. His injuries probably aren't very severe, but the Celtics are playing it safe and giving him rest because, as Doc Rivers explains it in medical terms, "He's 39."
The Spurs are handling Duncan the same way. When Gregg Popovich inactivated the big man for the first time on Saturday, he listed him on the injury report as "trop vieux," French for "too old."
It's still March so both teams can remain cautious for now. But when April, May and June roll around, it'll be time for two of the game's most dominant big men ever to assert themselves. A championship may well hang in the balance.
As Kobe would say, you can take that to the bank.