Forget the unexpected close games. Forget the TV ratings. As far as Shaquille O'Neal is concerned, the NBA final has been a flop.

After fouling out of Game 3, O'Neal accused Dikembe Mutombo of exaggerating the amount of contact being created by their tussle for turf in the low post.

"I didn't think the best defensive player in the game would be flopping like he did," O'Neal said Sunday night.

"That's a shame that the referees buy into that. I wish he'd stand up and play me like a man instead of flopping and crying every time I back him down."

Twelve hours later, O'Neal was not placated by the fact that the Lakers had survived without him to take a 2-1 lead in the series. He still was simmering over spending the last two-plus minutes on the bench.

At practice Monday, O'Neal re-invented himself as The Big Adolescent. He doesn't care if it's a board game or a video game. He just wants to play, as long as it's not charades.

"I said what I said and I meant what I said," O'Neal said. "Treat me like a game of checkers and play me. That's all I'm asking is play me. Just play me...like Sega."

Mutombo, who has done better against O'Neal than any other big man in the post-season, was taken aback by the accusation and delivered a shot in return.

"I have a lot of respect for O'Neal, but for him coming up and trying to accuse me of something, I think it's so ridiculous," he said after the game. Many opponents have tried the flop approach with O'Neal but Mutombo has not been one of them.

The four-time defensive player of the year has made his reputation as one of the great defenders in NBA history by challenging shots. However, O'Neal is the most imposing physical specimen in NBA history. Roughly the same height as Mutombo, he is 50 pounds heavier and plays with a scary combination of force and agility that at times can get him in trouble.

"I've seen guys try and take flops on Shaquille but I've never seen Deke try and flop on anybody," said Todd MacCulloch, a 265-pound seven-footer who has been manhandled by O'Neal.

"When Shaquille O'Neal makes those moves and he hits you, it's not a flop; you're just getting knocked backwards. And if the referee feels that Shaq's initiating too much of the contact, then he's going to call it."

Early in his career, O'Neal pulled a backboard off its moorings in New Jersey and yanked down the entire basket stanchion in Phoenix. That is the type of force he exerts when he goes body-to-body with opposing big men.

"I don't know how punishing it is because I'm not a centre and I don't have to deal with that," teammate Kobe Bryant said. "I just encourage it."

Factor in his troubles at the free-throw line and O'Neal is fouled harder and more often than any player in NBA history except perhaps Wilt Chamberlain.

Some of the shots he takes would have lesser men looking to retaliate, a notion O'Neal entertains every once in a while. "I just wish that the things that get done to me, that I could do them back," O'Neal said. "Foul unto others as they foul unto me."

However, that would play directly into opponents' hands who would like nothing more than to see the game's best player sitting on the bench in foul trouble.

By playing through the relentless battering, O'Neal often demoralizes foes.

"I often tell him it's compared to Michael (Jordan)," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Michael would get fouled on every play and still have to play through it and just clear himself for shots instead and would rise to that occasion."

With his size and skill, O'Neal really has no other choice but to play through it. If he complains about Mutombo's flops, he sounds as if he's making excuses. If he retaliates, he's doing himself and his teammates absolutely no good.

O'Neal has two days off before Game 4. Instead of playing checkers or Sega, The Big Adolescent may want to follow the advice of Bryant and play a Berlitz tape on his cassette deck.

"I might cuss the official out in Italian," Bryant said. "But other than that, I just move on and just play the game."