Shaquille O’Neal dominated just about everywhere he played. However, the mountain of a man had a much more difficult time getting his numbers in the literal mountains.
Opponents often fouled The Diesel and sent him to the free-throw line as part of the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich humorously deployed the “Hack-a-Shaq” at the beginning of a game.
However, O’Neal himself did a good share of fouling whenever he played against the Denver Nuggets. The reason? He needed to catch his breath.
Shaquille O’Neal admitted he intentionally got into foul trouble when playing in Denver
Shaquille O’Neal made a hilarious admission to his peers and basketball fans alike during a February 2018 “Players Only” edition of NBA on TNT. O’Neal said he routinely used to “foul shave” whenever he played in Denver, especially as a member of the Lakers.
“I used to be so tired I couldn’t breathe . Here’s three quick fouls. Phil [Jackson]’s like ‘I know what you’re doing.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m foul shaving.'”–Shaquille O’Neal (2018)
Chris Webber joked that his old playoff foe chose a good time to make such an admission, adding that former Nuggets opponents probably would have worn Shaq down in pick-and-roll sets had they known about his fatigue.
The altitude apparently slowed The Diesel to the point where he found it necessary to exit the game. Indeed, O’Neal faced numerous questions about his conditioning and playing shape throughout his career.
O’Neal faced conditioning questions during his career
Shaquille O’Neal felt no qualms about occasionally letting his body go during his playing career, including during the Lakers’ three-peat.
O’Neal told Graham Bensinger in 2015 that he didn’t work very hard in practice. He felt he could coast while still being an indomitable force in the paint and leading LA to championship after championship. That relatively lax attitude ultimately irked Kobe Bryant.
While Shaq needed to work his way into the season and spent offseasons focusing on anything but basketball, an emerging Kobe took on more and more responsibility. He criticized O’Neal during an infamous 2003 interview with Jim Gray, resulting in Shaq allegedly (and hyperbolically) wanting to “murder” Bryant.
The Big Aristotle’s past comments about foul-shaving are essentially reflective of the idea that he wasn’t always in the best shape. Still, to Shaq’s credit, he showed up when it mattered most.
Conditioning issues never stopped The Diesel from making an impact
Shaq’s engines might have purred at the beginning of each season, but they revved loudly when the spotlight shone brightest.
O’Neal played heavy minutes for the Lakers during their three-peat, including in each Finals series. He averaged over 45 minutes during the 2000 and 2001 Finals before averaging 41.5 minutes in 2002. He made the most of that time.
The Hall of Fame center won three consecutive Finals MVPs, averaging close to 36 points and 15.2 rebounds across all three series.’ No opposing big could contain Shaq during the Lakers dynasty. Even in LA’s 2004 Finals defeat, Shaq proved such an imposing physical challenge for Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace that Big Ben came out of his shoe.
Foul trouble might otherwise have prevented O’Neal from dominating, and he did occasionally find himself needing to take a seat on the bench. Fortunately for LA, Shaq never had to play a single playoff game in Denver from 2000 to 2004. Alas, if Shaq had no reason not to be in the game and power the Lakers to multiple titles.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.