O’Neal dom­i­nated the 2000 NBA Fi­nals like no other player in re­cent years

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KENT BABB kent.babb@wash­post.com

Atime or two dur­ing the 2000 NBA Fi­nals, Jonathan Ben­der found him­self where no player liked to be: be­tween the bas­ket and Shaquille O’Neal.

Ben­der was 19 at the time, a rookie small for­ward for the In­di­ana Pac­ers. And here came a train: 7 feet 1, 325 pounds and speed­ing through the lane.

“A help­less sit­u­a­tion,” said Ben­der, him­self a 7-footer but who weighed about 125 pounds less than O’Neal. “From that point, there’s re­ally noth­ing you can do. You try to come down and dou­ble, but that guy was just too big, man.”

Look­ing back, Ben­der said, de­fend­ing the 27-year-old O’Neal was a nearly im­pos­si­ble as­sign­ment for any team. That year and in those Fi­nals, the Lak­ers’ cen­ter and most dif­fi­cult matchup — so big, so strong, so quick to the bas­ket — O’Neal was per­haps at the height of his pow­ers. In fact, the player eval­u­a­tion met­ric Game Score sug­gests O’Neal’s per­for­mance in 2000, when the Lak­ers de­feated the Pac­ers in six games to win the first of three con­sec­u­tive ti­tles, was the most dom­i­nant feat in Fi­nals his­tory. It was more im­pres­sive than Michael Jor­dan and bet­ter even than this year’s show­ing by Cleve­land’s LeBron James — play­ers who han­dled the ball far more of­ten than O’Neal, who av­er­aged 38 points, 16.7 re­bounds and 2.7 blocks in those six con­tests.

“It’s not re­ally nor­mal to have a guy that big down low and have a guy as good as Kobe [Bryant] was out there on the perime­ter,” Ben­der said. “You put to­gether th­ese game plans and you try to go in, but there’s only so much you can do.”

En­ter­ing those Fi­nals, Ben­der said, Pac­ers coach Larry Bird hoped to min­i­mize the im­pact of L.A.’s other play­ers. Shaq and Kobe could get their points, make their mark — af­ter a 67-win regular sea­son, in which O’Neal came one vote from his­tory’s first unan­i­mous MVP se­lec­tion, that much was a given — but if In­di­ana had a chance, the Lak­ers had to seem like a two-man team. Glen Rice, Ron Harper, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher had to be neu­tral­ized; oth­er­wise, In­di­ana was go­ing to be crushed.

And be­sides, the Pac­ers were tal­ented, too. Reg­gie Miller was 34, but he still fin­ished third in the league in shoot­ing per­cent­age. His 165 three-point­ers were fourth among long-range shoot­ers that sea­son, and he had Jalen Rose and all-star for­ward Dale Davis along­side him.

Bird “rec­og­nized how good they were, him and Shaq and Kobe, but he rec­og­nized how good we were, as well,” Ben­der said. “The whole thing was just to man­age Shaq. . . . The first thing was catch­ing him above the free throw line and putting a body on him, even though it was im­pos­si­ble to do that. He was still go­ing to get any­where he wanted to get.

“Put a body on him, just some kind of body on him. From that point, there’s re­ally noth­ing you can do.”

Once the Fi­nals be­gan, the Lak­ers won the first two games be­fore a Game 3 In­di­ana victory made it tem­po­rar­ily in­ter­est­ing. The Pac­ers seemed to think they were de­fend­ing more than just O’Neal.

“He got the all-star treat­ment from ref­er­ees,” said Rik Smits, the for­mer Pac­ers cen­ter who drew the as­sign­ment of de­fend­ing O’Neal dur­ing that se­ries. “Not that he needed it.”

O’Neal at­tempted 93 free throws dur­ing those six games, more than dou­ble the at­tempts of any other Pac­ers or Lak­ers player, and made 38.7 per­cent of them. That was be­fore the wide­spread and ex­cru­ci­at­ing game ex­tend­ing strat­egy of pur­posely send­ing O’Neal to the line be­came com­mon. If any­thing, maybe that se­ries gave fu­ture coaches ideas.

Ev­ery time a Pac­ers player took a hit, there was O’Neal head­ing back to the foul line.

“He’d just run through you,” Smits said, “and he would never get an of­fen­sive foul.”

Even so, fol­low­ing a lop­sided Pac­ers win in Game 5, the se­ries re­turned to Los An­ge­les, and O’Neal scored 41 points to close out the Fi­nals and se­cure the Lak­ers’s first cham­pi­onship in a dozen years. As time ex­pired, O’Neal stood with his arms raised as Bryant jumped to­ward him, con­fetti fell, a dy­nasty be­gan — and the 325-pound train fi­nally slowed down enough to find his fam­ily, wrap­ping them all in hugs.

JOHN RUTHROFF/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Shaquille O'Neal scored 41 points in a Game 6 victory over the Pac­ers in the 2000 NBA Fi­nals.

Ac­ing his Fi­nals

Shaquille O’Neal’s NBA Fi­nals per­for­mances with the Lak­ers.

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