Shaquille O’Neal is one of the most dominant forces in NBA history. But with the Miami Heat trailing the Dallas Mavericks 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals, he understood an emerging Dwyane Wade needed to take the reins.
The Heat brought O’Neal to South Beach in the summer of 2004 to be the final piece to the championship puzzle. However, Shaq acknowledged his decline at the most crucial juncture and gave Flash motivation that sparked one of the most impressive runs in Finals history.
Shaquille O’Neal struggled to make an impact as the Heat lost the first two games of the 2006 NBA Finals
The Heat likely hoped to establish Shaquille O’Neal in the paint through the first couple games of the 2006 NBA Finals. But the Mavericks had other plans.
Dallas made a point of harassing Shaq and ensuring he had to work for his buckets. O’Neal scored 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting in Game 1, but he shot just 1-of-9 from the free-throw line. The Mavericks ratcheted things up a notch in Game 2, holding The Diesel to just five points on 2-of-5 shooting. He again struggled from the charity stripe, going 1-of-7 from the foul line.
The Mavericks’ determination to take Shaq out of the game paid big dividends. Miami scored a combined 85 points through the first two games, with Dallas outscoring the Heat by 24 points.
O’Neal understood Miami’s game plan needed altering. He took it upon himself to consult D-Wade and encourage him to look for his own offense.
O’Neal demanded that Dwyane Wade take control of the series
Shaq recognized that the Mavs hoped to isolate him and force his teammates to create for themselves. He also realized the Heat could not rely on their veterans to carry them through. The onus fell on Dwyane Wade.
O’Neal said in 2020 (h/t Heat.com) that he had a conversation with Wade during which he told Flash to be aggressive and constantly hunt offense. Superman even said he could only satisfy a reserve role.
“So, I was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m getting quadruple and triple-teamed. What are y’all going to do? What are y’all going to do?’ And finally, I told D-Wade, ‘Don’t be nice. Don’t be nice. At this point, I’m going to be a role player. Do it.'”–Shaquille O’Neal (2020), via Heat.com
Shaq’s willingness to serve himself a slice of humble pie marked a critical departure from The Diesel of old.
Whereas the Los Angeles Lakers version of O’Neal still wanted to be the fulcrum of the team’s offense, he knew he could no longer carry a team. This series hinged on Wade’s ability to realize his superstar potential.
Flash did just that, embarking on one of the greatest four-game stretches in NBA history.
Wade carried the Heat to their first NBA title
Shaquille O’Neal’s advice gave Dwayne Wade the reassurance he needed to take command.
Wade led the Heat on a remarkable turnaround. It began in Game 3, when he scored 42 points and poured in 15 in the final period to get Miami back into the series. Flash continued to elevate from there.
The best player in Heat history scored 36 points as Miami blew out the Mavs in Game 4. He shot just 11-of-28 from the field in a pivotal Game 5, but relentlessly attacked the basket and racked up 21 free throws. That hyper-aggressive mindset led to a 43-point outing and gave the Heat a 3-2 series lead.
Wade stayed on the offensive in Game 6. He scored 36 points and went 16-of-21 from the charity stripe, also chipping in 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks. His outstanding display remains one of the best series-clinching performances in NBA history.
The four-game stretch solidified Wade’s place as one of the best players in basketball and can be seen as the point when he ascended to the ranks of the game’s elite. He also learned from Shaq’s humility.
Wade had a similar message for LeBron James after the “Big 3” Heat lost to the Mavs in the 2011 NBA Finals, telling LBJ to establish himself as the No. 1 option. Miami promptly won back-to-back titles.
O’Neal’s message for Flash had a resounding impact on Wade, both in the moment and for years to come.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.