The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were the middle rung of a dynasty that won three straight championships from 2000-02. The ’00 version was a young champion, pushed to the edge a few times before finally closing it out. The ’02 crown deserves the biggest asterisk in NBA history, coming due to some hotwired officiating in a series against the Sacramento Kings. But the 2001 team was different.
In 2001, there were no problems with closing teams out, and no WWF-style officiating techniques required. The Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were simply dominant, and that were at their best in a historic playoff run.
Shaq and Kobe each averaged 29 ppg, while Shaq also grabbed 13 rebounds a night. The two stars were supplemented by a veteran cast whose championship mettle had already been tested–Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry.
Overseeing it all was Phil Jackson on the sidelines and Los Angeles won 56 games in the regular season.
The Western Conference had established itself as the superior side of the NBA, and the Lakers still trailed the San Antonio Spurs and 24-year-old Tim Duncan by two games.What’s more, Los Angeles had to run a playoff gauntlet that started with 50-win teams in the first round.
Los Angeles responded by wreaking havoc in the playoffs. They went a stunning 11-0 through the Western Conference bracket (the first round was still best-of-five in 2001). The anticipated battle with the Spurs turned into a rout. Not only did the Lakers sweep, they won by an average of 22 points per game. While Duncan came close to matching Shaq’s numbers, Kobe lit up the San Antonio guards for 33 points a game in the conference finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers and league MVP Allen Iverson awaited in the Finals. The 76ers had gotten some cautiously rigged officiating of their own in surviving seven-game tests against both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, as the league apparently was honing its craft in preparation for the big robbery of 2002 in the Kings-Lakers series.
There’s no question that Iverson and against Shaq/Kobe made for great theatre in the Finals and the 76ers finally did something that seemed impossible–they beat the Lakers in a postseason game. Iverson went off for 48 point in a 107-101 overtime victory in Game 1 at Los Angeles. Shaq was dominant, with 44 points/20 rebounds, but Kobe was just 7-for-22 from the floor.
Philadelphia stayed competitive over Games 2 and 3, but Los Angeles first stabilized the series and then reclaimed homecourt advantage. Iverson was held to 10-for-29 shooting in Game 2, and then Kobe and Shaq combined for 62 points in Game 3.
Even with the series in Philly for the middle three games, the Sixers couldn’t recapture their Game 1 magic. Los Angeles was now locked in, and they won the next two games by double-digit margins to seal a repeat championship. Shaq averaged 33/16 in the five games and was named the 2001 NBA Finals MVP. Iverson had gotten his points–36 a night, but at 41 percents shooting.
The Los Angeles Lakers were just too good to be stopped and the 2001 edition was one of their all-time great teams, and the best of their early 21st century dynasty.