The 2021 NBA Finals reversed some recent trends. The battle between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns marked the first time since 2018 that 3-point attempts per game declined in the Finals. The long bombs flew at their lowest rate since the 2015 NBA Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominance in the paint carried the Bucks to their first championship in 50 years and earned him the Finals MVP award. His performance also provided some thrills for one notable member of a previous generation: Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal, who could dominate around the basket a little bit during his 19 NBA seasons, was thrilled to see an inside presence dominate the NBA Finals. With the continued rise of the 3-point shot, it’s been a while since that sort of paint dominance.
Shaquille O’Neal was an undeniable force during the Lakers’ title runs
As the Los Angeles Lakers won three straight NBA titles from 2000–02, Shaquille O’Neal feasted on whoever their opponent tried to throw at him.
Against the Indiana Pacers in 2000, Shaq abused Rik Smits and Dale Davis to the tune of 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds per game on 61.1% shooting. Primarily against four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo in 2001, O’Neal averaged a mere 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds while shooting a paltry 57.3% as the Lakers took out the Philadelphia 76ers in five games.
In LA’s sweep of the New Jersey Nets in 2002, what O’Neal did to Todd MacCulloch and Jason Collins bordered on cruel and unusual punishment. Shaq scored 36.3 points a game to go with 12.3 boards a night and shot 59.5% from the floor. Bear in mind that O’Neal didn’t log as large a workload against New Jersey because the Nets led for less than 24 minutes. Not in any game. No, the Nets led for less than 24 minutes in the entire series, including a whopping 59 seconds over the two games in LA.
It makes sense then that what Giannis Antetokounmpo did to the Suns received Shaq’s stamp of approval.
The Phoenix Suns had few answers for Giannis Antetokounmpo
While leading the Bucks to the championship, Giannis Antetokounmpo took complete ownership of the restricted area. Antetokounmpo took 10.5 shots per game at the rim and converted 84.1% of them. Against Indiana in 2000, Shaquille O’Neal shot 81.3% on 10.7 attempts a game in the restricted area. He was better than 70% from there in the victories over Philadelphia and New Jersey.
After Milwaukee clinched the title, O’Neal took to his Instagram account to congratulate and thank Antetokounmpo.
“Thanks for bringing olde school bully basketball back. It’s only one Superman now and that’s you. Dam (sic) you was dominating. Wow.”Shaquille O’Neal
Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points and 13.2 rebounds for the series while also dishing out 5.0 assists a game. He shot 61.8% overall. As O’Neal pointed out, it was a win for classic basketball, and Shaq got to take a swipe at an old foe, too.
Shaquille O’Neal played in a different era from that of Giannis Antetokounmpo
One of the persisting criticisms of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game is his inability to develop a consistent 3-point shot. For his career, he’s a 28.7% shooter from the great beyond, and the 34.7% accuracy he had on 1.5 attempts per game as a rookie is a career high. In the Finals, Giannis was 3-of-15.
Shaquille O’Neal averaged more than one 3-point attempt … per season. In 19 years, he was 1-of-22 from out there. He never tried one in the playoffs.
In his first Finals, the Pacers and Lakers combined to average 34.7 3-point attempts per game. Against the Sixers the following year, the number fell to 26.8. The Nets and Lakers averaged 30.0.
By contrast, the Bucks and Suns fired up 59.8 3-point attempts per game, which marked the first time that average had fallen below 60 since 2015 when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors put up 58.8 long balls a game.
This year’s Finals averaged 11.5 fewer 3-point attempts per game than in 2020 when the Lakers and Miami Heat combined to hoist 71.3 triple tries per contest. That’s second-most in Finals history behind the 71.8 attempts per outing by the Cavaliers and Warriors in 2017.
And it was the first time the rate of 3-pointers went down year-over-year since 2018. Cleveland and Golden State dipped from their record total in 2017 to a mere 64.5 3-point tries a game the following June.
Does this mean every team will start running endless post-ups and pound the ball inside every possession? Not likely. But Giannis Antetokounmpo proved he could win without a reliable 3-point shot. That’s a win for the bigs of every generation.