Shaq continues to show some love to Kobe!

It’s difficult to believe that almost 24 years have already passed since the Los Angeles Lakers won its first championship with the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant leading the way. O’Neal and Bryant formed arguably the most dangerous guard-big man combo in NBA history, and before their flammable personalities meant that a parting of ways was inevitable, they managed to win three championships in a row, the last time any team has done so in the NBA.

The prevailing notion regarding O’Neal and Bryant’s partnership in the early 2000s was that the former was the Lakers’ best player, with the latter functioning as an overqualified number two. That may be true, but only to an extent. As O’Neal admitted in an appearance on The Draymond Green Show, he believes that Bryant willingly sacrificed and took a backseat for the betterment of the Lakers and that Bryant could have won Finals MVP in any of the years they won a championship together if he commandeered the ball more often.

“He (Bryant) sacrificed, he did. ‘Cuz all those Finals where he helped me win a championship, he damn sure could have easily got Finals MVP, but that was our plan. Big dog, you eat for the first three (quarters) and in the fourth, I take over,” O’Neal said.

It’s an interesting tidbit to note that, according to Shaquille O’Neal’s story, the Lakers trusted Kobe Bryant to take control of the reins in the fourth quarter while Shaq dominated the first three periods. This trust led to Bryant’s magical performance in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals, which Shaq called the favorite game of his career.

“My favorite game [came] in Indiana [during] our first championship, where I fouled out. I looked at him, I was like, ‘If we lose, it’s all my f**king fault. Shaq you motherf****r you wanna be a rapper, you doing movies and you ain’t concentrating on your free throws.’ … I already know if we f***ing lose this series, it’s going to be my fault. I’m looking at Kobe, motherf***** do me like [relax],” O’Neal added.

“That motherf****r, he had like an incredible four or five [points] — I knew then we was going to win our first championship.”

Indeed, that Game 4 was as crucial as it was going to get. With an opportunity to go up 3-1 on the road, the game went to overtime after Shaquille O’Neal missed what would have been a game-winning shot. At the 2:33 mark of OT, O’Neal fouled out, calling into action veteran big man John Salley.

This then pressed Kobe Bryant into number-one option duties, and he delivered. Bryant made two big midrange shots to keep the Pacers at bay, and with five seconds left, he made a tip-in to extend the Lakers’ lead to three, 120-117. They ended up winning the game by two, 120-118, after Reggie Miller missed a game-winning three-point attempt.

Eventually, the Lakers would win in six games. But Bryant set the stage for their three-year run of domination with his heroics, which Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t want to get lost in anyone’s memory.

Kobe and Shaq, arguably the best duo in Lakers history

Now, there may be an argument that Kobe Bryant should have won at least one Finals MVP from 2000 to 2002, but the stats paint a very convincing picture in favor of Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal was a dominant force who was simply unguardable for the Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and New Jersey Nets.

From 2000 to 2002, O’Neal was a monster who averaged 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.9 blocks while shooting 59.5 percent from the field, winning the Finals MVP award in three consecutive years in deserved fashion. While Bryant’s numbers improved through the years and he was ever crucial in securing the Lakers’ 2000 championship with his heroics vs. the Pacers, his numbers still paled in comparison to O’Neal’s (22.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists during those three years).

But starting from the 2002-03 season, Kobe Bryant started to wrestle control of the offense from O’Neal. In 2003, Bryant averaged 30-7-6 despite being only in his age-24 season while O’Neal decided to delay having the surgery to repair an injury on his toe. That season was a struggle for the Lakers, setting the stage for their beef that lasted many years.

But eventually, the two sides found peace. Shaquille O’Neal won a championship in 2006 with the Miami Heat, while Bryant would win two NBA Finals MVP awards in 2009 and 2010. The two all-time greats have also been successful in their post-playing career pursuits, although Bryant’s life was tragically cut short in 2020 — prompting O’Neal to show his old running mate nothing but love since.

Had the two been more agreeable with one another, the Lakers may have won five championships with them leading the way. But even then, it speaks volumes to how talented they were that even if they didn’t see eye to eye, they still managed to reach the pinnacle of team success on multiple occasions.