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Shaq vs. Duncan: Pivot-al Matchup

O'Neal has the edge in series wins over Duncan.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: April 17, 2008

Often in sports, the most intriguing matchups are when the favorite takes on the underdog, pitting David vs. Goliath. But an argument could be made that that the showdown of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan is just as compelling, albeit a basketball version of Goliath vs. Goliath.

The two big men have dominated the league over the past decade, with the two players having a hand in every NBA Finals dating back to 1999. One would have to break out a video of Utah’s Bryon Russell getting crossed over by the Bulls’ Michael Jordan in 1998 to see a Finals contest without O’Neal or Duncan. They have battled in the playoffs five times, fueling both a respect and rivalry between the two giants.

Now the two will do battle once again as the Suns and Spurs square off in the first round of the playoffs. It almost seems predestined that the top two post players of a generation will face each other within the most heated rivalry in the league. Phoenix, knowing that its first NBA championship would have to go through San Antonio, enlisted the help of O'Neal for this very type of circumstance,

"If anybody knows what Tim's going to do with the ball, I think it's me," O'Neal stated. "We've had our battles."

When asked about his familiarity with Duncan, the Big Aristotle responded, “It’s not so much an advantage as that you want to become great when you play against greatness.

“He knows what I’m going to do, I know what he’s going to do. You’re not really going to stop him, you just have to try to stay in front of him and try to make him work.”

Shaq has followed his own advice this season. In the Suns' two games with O’Neal against the Spurs, he has held Duncan to 15-of-40 shooting in two Phoenix victories. Without O’Neal, the Suns split with the Spurs and Duncan shot 22-of-41 from the field.

“The biggest change (Shaq) makes is defensively," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "Now there is a big guy there to collapse in the paint and guard Tim during some parts of the game.

"So when you go by your man, his presence is difficult. (With Shaq,) they gain a lot in one respect and lose some things in the other. But Shaq is Shaq so you always have to respect him. ”

The two big men first clashed on an epic level during the 1999 Western Conference Semifinals. The Spurs boasted the “Twin Towers” combination of David Robinson and Duncan, while O’Neal was playing with the emerging Kobe Bryant. Duncan would strike first in their rivalry, powering the Spurs to a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers.

O’Neal fared well in the series, compiling 23.8 points, 13 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, but was constantly hampered by the defensive duo of Robinson and Duncan. Meanwhile, Duncan had a field day with the Lakers’ power forward, J.R. Reid, erupting for 29.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and two blocks a game.

After the series, O’Neal declared, "It's very embarrassing. I hate saying, 'Well, we played hard.' No, now it's over."

Looking back, it might have been the turning point of Shaq’s career. The franchise went out and hired Zen Master Phil Jackson. Jackson implemented the triangle offense, brought in championship-level credibility and melded a supporting cast around O’Neal to claim the title in 2000.

The Spurs, on the other hand, were eliminated in the first round by the Jason Kidd-Shawn Marion-powered Suns. San Antonio, who was playing without an injured Duncan, didn’t have enough firepower to combat the Suns. So even though the Lakers had finally broken through, there was a slight asterisk next to their title, because the Spurs weren’t at full strength.

The true measure of how dominant the Lakers had become would be tested in the 2001 Western Conference Finals. With no excuses to fall back on, the Spurs were swept 4-0 by the Lakers. O’Neal averaged 27 points, 13 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, while Duncan countered with 23 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks for the series. After eliminating San Antonio, L.A. marched to their second consecutive championship, rolling over the Sixers 4-1.

The Lakers would tame the Spurs once again in 2002, dominating them in the Western Conference Semifinals by securing a 4-1 series victory. O’Neal posted 21.4 points, 12.2 boards and three blocks a game, while Duncan exploded for 29 points, 17.2 caroms and 3.2 blocks for the series. The Lakers stormed through The Finals by defeating the Nets and earned their third straight title. It would be the last title that L.A. would win, as the balance of power in the West would begin to switch over to San Antonio.

The Lakers’ role players began to age and provide less support for their two stars, causing L.A. to drop to a No. 5 seed in the West. Although O’Neal performed admirably in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals by averaging 25.3 points, 14.3 boards and 2.8 rejections, it wasn’t enough, as a gritty Spurs club eliminated the Lakers, 4-2. Duncan, meanwhile, racked up 28 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks for the series, giving San Antonio the punch necessary to finally overcome the Lakers and advance to The Finals. They would eventually roll to a 4-2 Finals victory over the Nets.


Can "The Diesel" finally allow the Suns not to double-team Duncan in the post?
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
The Lakers would re-tool their team by acquiring free agents Gary Payton and Karl Malone, setting up a 2004 Western Conference Semifinals battle with the Spurs. Although San Antonio sprinted to a 2-0 series advantage, the Lakers stormed back to clinch the series 4-2.

It was only the eighth time in NBA history that a team down 0-2 came back to clinch the series. O’Neal and Duncan went to war again, with “The Diesel” averaging 22.5 points, 14.5 boards and 4.3 blocks, while Duncan posted 20.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks for the series.

L.A. would go on to dismantle Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals before falling apart to a savvy Pistons squad in The Finals. The defeat led to the deconstruction of the Lakers, who shipped Shaq to Miami for Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. San Antonio would become the heir apparent in the West, rebounding to win the 2005 Finals over the Pistons.

O’Neal broke through to bring the title home to Miami in 2006, while San Antonio reclaimed the O’Brien trophy in 2007. As the two most dominant players of the last decade, it is difficult to determine who has been more valuable to their team during the postseason.

For his playoff career, O’Neal has averaged 25.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on 57-percent shooting from the floor, while Duncan has posted averages of 23.8 points, 12.5 caroms and 2.8 blocks on 51-percent shooting. Head-to-head, O’Neal has racked up 23.9 points, 14 rebounds and 2.8 blocks against Duncan, while Duncan has responded with 25.9 points, 12.5 boards and 2.7 blocks. Shaq is 3-2 in playoff series against Duncan, while both of them own four championship rings apiece.

It's no wonder that Suns saw O’Neal as perhaps the lone remedy for containing Duncan and hurdling past San Antonio in the playoffs. Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni believes that his center could be the deciding factor in the series.

“There is a 325-pound beast down low that we have to get the ball to,” D’Antoni said. “On defense, Shaq will be isolated on Duncan because we don’t want to double, and he defended him well the last two games.”

When O’Neal arrived in Phoenix, he was frustrated by naysayers who criticized he didn’t have enough “gas left in his tank” to help Phoenix get over the hump. He was so aggravated that in his introductory press conference he declared, “When I’m upset I’m known to do certain things; like win championships."

Hopefully that desire within him still runs deep, because if he can frustrate Duncan and the Suns can knock off the defending champions, Phoenix will have taken a giant leap forward to achieving that goal.

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