A time 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,” 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 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, then-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 winning the first two games before a Game 3 Pacers 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.