Shaquille O'Neal's Rivalry with Rik Smits Ignited His Drive in 2000 NBA Finals

O'Neal's deep study boosts Finals performance against Smits.

by Nouman Rasool
Shaquille O'Neal's Rivalry with Rik Smits Ignited His Drive in 2000 NBA Finals
© Greg Doherty/Getty Images

Throughout his illustrious NBA career, Shaquille O'Neal often towered over his competition, yet one player consistently challenged him: Rik Smits of the Indiana Pacers. Standing at an impressive 7'4", Smits, known for his skillful midrange shooting and deft footwork, posed a significant challenge to O'Neal, particularly during the pivotal 1999-2000 NBA season.

That season marked a crucial juncture for O'Neal, as he pursued his first NBA Championship. It was also Smits' farewell season, yet he continued to be a formidable presence, a constant thorn in O'Neal's side. Despite his career being marred by injuries, Smits maintained an impressive presence in the paint, averaging 12.9 points and 1.3 blocks per game.

His unique blend of offensive skills remained a potent threat to any opponent, even as he entered the twilight of his career. On the other side, Shaquille O'Neal, nicknamed 'The Diesel', was a force of nature. He led the league with a staggering average of 29.7 points and 3.0 blocks per game, earning the season's MVP title.

However, despite these accolades and his overwhelming physical prowess, O'Neal found it challenging to exert his usual dominance against Smits.

Finals Rivalry Peaks

The rivalry reached its zenith during the 2000 NBA Finals.

Coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, O'Neal was determined not to let his fatigue undermine his performance. He meticulously studied past game tapes, preparing to confront Smits head-on.

O'Neal remarked, "When we played them in the Finals, I saw that this guy used to kill me, so now that I'm here, I got to kill him immediately so he understands this is a different Shaq." With the strategic implementation of coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, the task of containing O'Neal was daunting for any team.

O'Neal, fueled by a mix of determination and a personal vendetta against Smits, unleashed his fury on the court. He dominated the first two games with stellar performances, scoring 43 and 40 points, respectively, securing a crucial 2-0 lead for the Lakers.

As the series progressed, the Pacers mounted a comeback, but O'Neal was unstoppable. In Game 6, he delivered a commanding performance with 41 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks, committing zero turnovers and sitting out for just 30 seconds.

His overwhelming display not only cemented his dominance over Smits but also propelled the Lakers to clinch the championship. Shaquille O'Neal's intense preparation and execution against Rik Smits in the 2000 Finals underscored his commitment to his team and his legacy.

While known for his playful persona, this series highlighted a Shaq fully engaged in battle, showing a glimpse of what might have been if he had approached every matchup with the same intensity.

Shaquille Nba Finals