Shaquille O’Neal became Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando Magic’s 1995 Finals run

Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal dominated the 1995 Playoffs, becoming the champion who would dominate the league for a decade. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal dominated the 1995 Playoffs, becoming the champion who would dominate the league for a decade. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images) /

Shaquille O’Neal was no longer a young prodigy after the 1995 Finals run. In that postseason, Shaq became the champion player that dominated the decade.

The image of Shaquille O’Neal for most fans is the hulking, bruising force that dominated the low post throughout the early 2000s. He was physically bigger and more bruising than everyone else in an era of basketball that valued that physicality and low-post presence.

Shaquille O’Neal was the giant force of the early 2000s, winning titles from 2000-02, reaching the Finals again in 2004 and then again with the Miami Heat in 2006. He was the dominant force in the league for the better part of the 2000s. Rules changed to try to limit his impact and give defenses a chance to defend him.

He seemingly never won MVP because for a long time he was the MVP by default — his lone MVP trophy came in 2000. His presence was so clear that he seemingly played his way into shape every year. It never really mattered. O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers were always that good.

When O’Neal was at his peak, he was completely indefensible. He could bulldoze pretty much any center to his spot underneath the basket and overpower them for rebounds. When teams tried to double team him, he was a deft passer, able to pick passes out to the perimeter.

O’Neal was one of the best passing big men in the league’s history as much as he was a wrecking ball on the inside. He occupies a spot as one of the top-10 players of all-time — not to mention, one of the most marketable.

This O’Neal was not quite the one that existed in his four years with the Orlando Magic. O’Neal was a force in the paint, but not the hulking bruiser who physically destroyed the league. In Orlando, the potential was limitless.

O’Neal would go on to win four titles and dominate the league. He would find his place among the NBA’s greatest.

But the Orlando Magic’s version of O’Neal was much different. He was someone still finding his footing and figuring out his place in the league.

Establishing his place

From the moment he stepped into the league, everyone knew Shaquille O’Neal would dominate.

He won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star Team in his rookie year, averaging 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. The Orlando Magic finished 41-41, missing out on their first playoff berth on the fourth tiebreaker.

O’Neal had that much of an immediate impact.

The young O’Neal was a much different player. He dominated in the post with a brute force still. But he had speed and athleticism to match. He would fly down the court in transition, sometimes leading the break before finishing with force. He was not afraid to go diving into the stands to save loose balls.

The most famous image of O’Neal’s rookie year was him tearing down the backboard in the final game against the New Jersey Nets. The next most famous image is him sliding across the court, looking head-on toward the camera as he grabs the ball and throws it over his shoulder against the Golden State Warriors.

This was the magnanimous look of O’Neal in his early years. He was having fund dunking on everyone — a Superman’s ‘S’ adorning the advertising boards underneath the basket for each dunk. He was fun-loving and less serious.

The weight of winning had not come over him yet. But winning would find him quickly. He was simply too good to avoid it.

Becoming a champion

The process of becoming a champion is often filled with failure on the way to the title. But it is also filled with self-discovery. The great players going through Playoff battles and having to step their game up to meet the challenge.

Shaquille O’Neal was a force through his first three seasons. But it was the 1995 Playoffs where O’Neal really started to becoming the O’Neal who would dominate the league for the next decade.

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It was the first time he displayed the seriousness and composure to push and guide his team beyond its ability and into championship contention.

O’Neal already had every defense’s attention in each playoff series. He averaged 22.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game in the four-game series against the Boston Celtics. He posted 24.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in the six-game series against the Chicago Bulls.

His masterpiece series was against the Indiana Pacers. Despite some frustrations at the foul line — he shot 48.1-percent from the foul line, including missing all eight free throws in a one-point Game 4 loss — he averaged 27.3 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.

The Bulls doubled down on him hard and demanded other players, such as Horace Grant, beat them. O’Neal still proved to be a force. But the series was as much about how the other players stepped up.

His first Finals

The Eastern Conference Finals series, a revenge matchup from the 1994 first round, was more about Shaquille O’Neal and his maturation as a dominant force in the playoffs.

He has pointed out how difficult it was to go up against the 7-foot-4 Rik Smits. Yet, the Indiana Pacers still had to double him and constantly surround him to have any chance. And O’Neal shed them at every turn.

He weaved his way past the Pacers’ bigger front line — featuring Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis and Derrick McKey — for rebounds, often scratching out rebounds in traffic before finishing in traffic.

In Game 2, his 39 points keyed the Orlando Magic to a 119-114 win. A win that was comfortable until Reggie Miller got hot in the late throes of the game. O’Neal was doing his work.

He scored 30 or more points in three games of that seven-game series and at least 25 points in five of the games. The Pacers could do very little with him except to foul, always O’Neal’s biggest weakness.

But it was more than just his scoring output. In this series, especially, he started displaying the passing acumen that made him such a dangerous player when he finally broke through to win a championship.

He hit Horace Grant or Anfernee Hardaway cutting down the lane for dunks as the Pacers tried to collapse the defense around him.

He played a sort of paddy cake with Brian Shaw or Anfernee Hardaway in the low post, making quick passes in and out of the lane to try to establish better post position and keep the Pacers’ defense off balance. Those plays usually ended with an open corner three or O’Neal powering through a defense unable to get set.

It was the Magic’s offense working in balletic perfection.

Shaquille O’Neal’s ability to take slightsDavid Robinson routed him for the MVP award just before the series started — and recover from poor performances also showed through. O’Neal, at just 24 years old, showed a lot of maturity in responding to defenses going after him and focusing on his failings.

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  • After his Game 4 frustration, he scored 35 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Magic to a comfortable Game 5 victory. After losing in a blowout in Game 6, O’Neal calmly told David Steele on the plane ride home not to worry about Game 7, his team would be ready.

    They certainly were, pulling away in the second quarter and blowing the game open in the third and fourth quarter to turn the second half into a party. O’Neal scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had two assists.

    Orlando had grown up a lot in that series. And O’Neal had become O’Neal.

    Transformation not complete

    Of course, the transformation was not complete. The Orlando Magic probably celebrated their Eastern Conference title a bit too much. The NBA Finals were a different animal of attention and poise.

    Shaquille O’Neal accorded himself well. He averaged 28.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in the four-game NBA Finals series. Hakeem Olajuwon gave it right back to Shaquille O’Neal in a gargantuan one-on-one matchup. But the Magic did not lose that series because of O’Neal’s performance.

    But they certainly lacked the maturity and poise they had displayed throughout that playoffs to that point. Orlando had danced with and flirted with disaster throughout the postseason but always came through.

    The focused and determined Houston Rockets team just had a little more — call it the “heart of a champion,” I guess.

    The Magic did not get to see O’Neal’s next evolution. In 1996, he averaged 26.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game after missing the first 20-plus games with a broken thumb. O’Neal did not get to have a determined revenge season that he surely would have had.

    Injuries then derailed the Orlando Magic in their rematch with the 72-10 Chicago Bulls. They may not have won anyway, but losing three rotation players by the end hurt. And then it was all over. O’Neal was in Los Angeles and the rest became history.

    In 1995, the young shine on one of the league’s greatest players grew up into someone becoming a champion. O’Neal started to resemble the player who would dominate the league.

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    In 1995, though, O’Neal became O’Neal.