First of all, let’s be clear: Shaquille O’Neal was the single most dominant force in basketball since Wilt Chamberlain. At the end of an era when centers still ruled the earth’s hoops courts, O’Neal was the baddest big man of them all, punishing anyone who dared to challenge him in the paint with bruising post moves that typically resulted in cowering defenders and arena-shaking dunks. And it was worse if you were poor ol’ Chris Dudley.
So when Giannis Antetokounmpo started drawing comparisons to Shaq with his dominant play for the Milwaukee Bucks against the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, the “Get off my lawn” reflex had to be ignored. It required taking a moment to consider the merit of these claims. Giannis’ prodigious numbers certainly rise to the level of Shaq’s after the damage the Bucks superstar did in last Sunday’s 120-100 Game 3 win over the Suns.
The stats paint a telling picture of Antetokounmpo’s relentlessness around the rim. No longer hobbled by a sprained knee that seemed to imperil the Bucks’ championship hopes, the two-time MVP remarkably has been rejuvenated, showing no ill effects against a stout Suns defense. The clean bill of health was confirmed last Sunday when he followed up his 42 points and 12 rebounds in Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss with 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a Game 3 victory that cut the Bucks’ series deficit to 2-1.
Like O’Neal, Antetokounmpo is doing his damage inside, and he’s putting his head down and bulling his way to the basket to produce point-blank looks or entice whistles from referees. On Sunday, Giannis also shot an un-Shaq-like 13-for-17 from the free-throw line.
The way Antetokounmpo tells it, he’s just keeping it simple. “I feel like always I try to go to my strength, which is drive and getting downhill, getting in the paint, making the right pass and all that,” he said Tuesday.
Chris Paul talked about how the Suns need to “keep trying to build a wall” to stem the tidal wave of drives to the basket by Antetokounmpo. “He comes down there, he dunks, he dunks some more and he shoots a layup,” the Suns point guard said matter-of-factly.
Paul reluctantly addressed the Giannis/Shaq talk, though. “Yeah, those comparisons,” he begrudgingly acknowledged. “Shaq didn't push the break. He did in the All-Star Game. Well, he did a few times when he threw that lob or something like that.”
Like Antetokounmpo, O’Neal won consecutive MVPs, only he accomplished that feat during the playoffs. He was named Finals MVP for all three titles of the Los Angeles Lakers’ three-peat from 2000 to 2002. But unlike Shaq, Giannis doesn’t have a legendary sidekick like O’Neal had in the late great Kobe Bryant to share the burden.
Antetokounmpo is the face of the Milwaukee franchise and the focal point of its offense, which means he’s the primary target of every opponent’s defensive game plan. Sure, the Bucks upgraded their supporting cast with the additions of Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker, but they aren’t winning their first NBA championship since 1971 with Giannis playing a bit part. He absolutely has to be the star who produces every game no matter what, especially on nights when Khris Middleton and/or Holiday aren’t consistently hitting shots.
“I guess honestly this is what we kind of expect from him, right?” Holiday said Tuesday of Antetokounmpo’s Shaq-esque run. “He's the leader of our team. He's talked about this moment so many times, and him being in this moment and the responsibility that he feels. This is what we expect.”
The 3-point shot has downsized the game of basketball, letting diminutive sharpshooters to dictate play and allowing only the most versatile of big men to take the floor. So, to call Giannis the modern-day Shaq, after what he’s done the last two games, is completely accurate. He is not letting anyone get in his way. And right now, keeping Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ 7-foot center, out of foul trouble might be the best chance for Phoenix to slow Antetokounmpo’s roll.
So has Giannis really been as dominant as Shaq? In today’s NBA, yes, he has. The irony is that O’Neal always wanted to do do little-guy things — or Giannis-type things — to show off his skill set. He would seize the chance to corral a defensive rebound, drive coast-to-coast and score at the rim. But in Shaq’s case, a defense building a wall to stop him would not have been wise. Not against a 7-1 ball of energy that weighed 325 pounds and invited contact.
Milwaukee can’t afford to have Antetokounmpo stop his impression of O’Neal. Another show of force by Giannis in a Game 4 victory on Wednesday would not only reduce the Finals to a three-game series, but it would also give the Bucks the momentum going into Game 5 in Phoenix as well as the supreme confidence that they have the best player of the Finals functioning at an elite level — a championship level. Maybe if Antetokounmpo delivers a title, Shaq will even let him keep the “Superman” nickname.