Phil Jackson Gave Shaquille O’Neal the Recipe for Handling ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ Before it Became Infamous
Like the rest of the NBA, former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson understood the overpowering nature of Shaquille O’Neal‘s dominance. He also knew how opposing teams would attempt to get under The Diesel’s skin.
The “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy became a legitimate staple in the NBA, sometimes even in a comedic fashion. Rather than allow O’Neal to impose his will in the paint, teams got more physical and sent him to the free-throw line, something that proved more difficult for Superman than bullying guys in the low post. The approach also allowed opponents to wear on Shaq over the course of games.
Jackson spoke to this development in November 1999. He stuck up for O’Neal, but also gave him the only possible recipe for combatting the Hack-a-Shaq.
Lakers opponents played more and more physical with Shaquille O’Neal because of his poor free-throw shooting
Shaquille O’Neal’s power struck fear in the hearts of many big men throughout the years. But The Diesel likely felt powerless whenever he got sent to the charity stripe.
Phil Jackson saw O’Neal’s free-throw form undergo numerous changes throughout his career. None of the iterations were very successful, and he refused to shoot underhanded for prideful reasons. Shaq averaged 9.3 free throws during his playing career and ranks fourth all-time in free-throw attempts. He made just 52.7% of those efforts and had numerous seasons shooting below 50% from the foul line.
The poor stroke O’Neal displayed from the free-throw line ultimately became a sticking point for then-Dallas Mavericks head coach Don Nelson, which irked Jackson to no end.
As is explained in the New York Times, Nelson instructed his players to foul Shaq as often as possible during a Nov. 7, 1999 showdown between the Mavs and Lakers. O’Neal shot 10-of-23 from the line. The strategy worked.
Jackson had his star center’s back, saying Nelson had an affinity for bending the rules. But the Mavericks head coach issued the same directives to his players when the two teams played again two nights later. Shaq struggled even worse, going just 3-of-14 from the stripe. According to Nelson, O’Neal also broke a TV in the locker room.
For his part, Jackson grew more outspoken in his defense of Shaq. Still, he knew O’Neal had to stay within himself to overcome Hack-a-Shaq. Actually, the Zen Master said as much before the accredited start of Hack-a-Shaq.
Phil Jackson demanded that Shaq keep his head
Although Don Nelson gets most of the credit for Hack-a-Shaq, Jackson saw the storm brewing before the Lakers even played the Mavericks.
On Nov. 6 of 1999, LA played the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland. The Blazers played O’Neal extremely tough, sending Shaq to the free-throw line for 11 attempts and nearly instigating a brawl. The Diesel received two technical fouls and an ejection in a span of five minutes.
Jackson ripped into the referees after the game, saying it was ridiculous for the officials to vilify Shaq considering the toll his body had taken throughout the contest. However, the Hall of Fame head coach made no excuses (h/t LA Times) for O’Neal’s poor temperament.
“After the game, I let him know how unhappy I was with the fact that he could not contain himself in the game. That’s his responsibility.”–Phil Jackson (1999)
Jackson noted that the Lakers, thanks largely to Shaq, trailed by just seven points when he was ejected. They ultimately lost by 15 points.
The admonition from Phil is telling. He showed O’Neal he’d go to bat for him, but also asked The Diesel to focus on the things he could control.
O’Neal and the rest of the Lakers often found meaning in Jackson’s criticisms, authentic or not. The Zen Master motivated his players in a unique fashion when LA met the Blazers in the 1999-00 Western Conference Finals.
Similarly, while Phil’s words could not rectify Shaq’s woes from the line, The Diesel seemed to do a better job of staying within himself and making foul shots in the biggest of moments. Never was this more clear than in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
O’Neal made the Kings pay for Hack-a-Shaq in the 2002 Western Conference Finals
As the years went on, Phil Jackson continued to ask that referees blow the whistle for his star center. The endless support finally paid dividends in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
The Sacramento Kings all but admitted their intentions to foul O’Neal before the series. After Game 2, Jackson said (h/t ESPN) Shaq got called for bogus offensive fouls while not getting the benefit of the doubt on the other end.
Initially, Jackson’s words fell on deaf ears, or so it seemed. The Kings had 35 free-throw attempts in a Game 3 victory, while the Lakers took just 15 foul shots. However, the pendulum was about to swing the other way.
O’Neal went 9-of-13 from the charity stripe in Game 4 as the Lakers overcame a 20-point deficit in the first quarter. He went a perfect 6-of-6 in the fourth quarter alone. After the Kings regained the series lead at home in Game 5, O’Neal went 13-of-17 from the line in Game 6. He then went 11-of-15 in the decider as the Purple and Gold closed the series.
As has been discussed for nearly two decades, there is skepticism about the integrity of the referees in that series. Former Kings All-Star Chris Webber once reminded Shaq as much on national television.
Still, Jackson’s ability to work the refs and instill at least a semblance of calm in O’Neal ultimately contributed to winning. Overcoming Hack-a-Shaq proved a constant struggle, but head coach and star player worked in tandem to do just that.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.