The Detroit Pistons won the war in Game 1 with an impressive 87-75 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, but Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal won the battle inside. Shaq scored a game-high 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Guarding Shaq is the single most difficult task in the NBA. He's 350 pounds, agile, incredibly strong and quicker than you think.
I know firsthand how incredibly tough it is to defend Shaq because I had to guard him in practice for an entire year (we were teammates during the 1992-93 season with the Orlando Magic). I also played against him in games a few times when we were on opposing teams.
Here's a thumbnail sketch of what I used to try to do when I guarded Shaq ... unsuccessfully, I might add.
1. Do your work early.
First and foremost, you've got to do your work early when you're guarding Shaq. You need to start putting a body on him at the free-throw line as he's running downcourt. You've got to try to keep him off the low block.
As much as you possibly can, you've got to keep a body on him. Make him work, try to induce an offensive foul, maybe flop some. Because if you let him get it down low you're done. If he wants to go down low, he probably will. But if you can be really physical with him and make him work hard to get position, maybe you can get him a little bit disinterested. Maybe he won't work super-hard to get to the opposite post.
Of course, there's a fine line between making him disinterested and pissing him off. If you piss him off, he will get to that other block and you'll be in deep trouble.
2. Foul him.
If Shaq gets good position on you inside, you have to foul him. You have to wrap him up. You can't let him wheel and dunk on you. I know Shaq doesn't like it when opponents use this strategy, but you have to do what you can to win.
This is different than the Hack-a-Shaq approach, by the way.
What I'm recommending is to foul Shaq when he gets the ball so close to the basket that he has a guaranteed two points. It's similar to fouling a guy who's driving to the basket for an open layup, unless a defender stops him by fouling him.
The Hack-a-Shaq approach, though, is to foul Shaq as soon as the Lakers get the ball -- when he doesn't even have the ball, wherever he is on the court -- with the sole intent of putting him on the foul line (to exploit his poor free-throw shooting).
3. Box-out creatively.
Keeping Shaq off the offensive boards is essential, because an offensive rebound by Shaq inevitably leads to a dunk in your face.
If you get him to shoot a jump shot, often he'll be leaning toward the basket. After he shoots, don't try to turn around and box him out the conventional way. Just face-guard him and keep him at bay -- like an offensive lineman pass-protecting for a quarterback -- and hope a teammate gets the rebound. That way, at least you know where Shaq is. Put your forearm into his chest and try to keep him there and forget about getting the rebound yourself.
If you turn around, you lose sight of him and it's too easy to lose position. Then he comes crashing down on you, pushes you under the basket, gets the rebound ... and has an easy dunk.
Guarding Shaq is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. If he gets you in his wheelhouse, down low in the paint, forget it. Without question, guarding him one-on-one is the toughest thing in basketball.
Tom Tolbert, who played in the NBA for seven seasons, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.