The 2001 NBA playoffs were ultimately dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers, who rolled to the second of three consecutive championships in the Shaq-Kobe era. If you wanted excitement, you had to look to the Eastern Conference and the race for at least a berth in the NBA Finals. Fortunately, four teams in the East delivered. The conference semi-finals and finals each went the full seven games and were marked by extraordinary individual play, thrilling finishes and no shortage of controversy.
Allen Iverson averaged 31 ppg for the Philadelphia 76ers and won the MVP award, leading his team to a 56-26 record and the #1 seed in the East. Iverson got considerable help in the low post from Dikembe Mutombo, the big center who was a rebounding and shotblocking machine.
The Milwaukee Bucks hadn’t been a serious postseason threat since the days of Sidney Moncrief in the 1980s, but they had a great young duo of 25-year-old Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson.
These two joined forces with Sam Cassell, a veteran of the Houston Rockets’ 1994-95 championship runs, and together they won 52 games and earned the #2 seed.
Underdogs advanced to play Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Toronto Raptors were a 47-35 team and had the 5-seed. Vince Carter was an electric scorer, averaging 28 ppg, with Antonio Davis averaging 14 points/10 rebounds a night.
The Charlotte Hornets (not the same franchise as today’s Charlotte Bobcats) were led by explosive forward Jamal Mashburn, a 20 ppg scorer, while David Wesley kicked in 17 points per game.
The 2001 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs paired up Philadelphia-Toronto and Milwaukee-Charlotte in the second round, and the drama got rolling.
Toronto immediately made things interesting when they upset the Sixers in Game 1. Carter and Iverson both lit it up, but the Raptors got 20 points off the bench from veteran Dell Curry in a 96-93 win.
Then the two stars really took over for their home crowds. Iverson went off for 54 in a Game 2 win, but when the series went north to Toronto for Game 3, Carter answered with 50 and a win for his own team.
Game 4 would be a critical one, as the Philadelphia defense clamped down. They forced Carter into 8-of-27 shooting and were able to grind out an 84-79 win that reclaimed homecourt advantage. Another outburst from Iverson, 52 points in Game 5, led a Sixers rout that gave them control of the series. Carter again answered, this time with a 39-point game in a decisive 101-89 win that set up a decisive seventh game on a Sunday evening in Philadelphia.
The first controversy now reared its head. Carter was set to get his degree from the University of North Carolina and the ceremony would be held that morning. Carter decided to charter a private plane, fly down and pick up his diploma in person and then fly back to Philly. Debate broke out over whether Carter was setting an example of the importance of education or letting his team down.
I say the latter–the man already had his degree, even if he didn’t personally attend the ceremony. Davis was publicly upset that his teammate would not be on hand for the pregame preparation, to say nothing of the risk of bad weather preventing his flight getting back from Philadelphia.
Carter did not vindicate himself. It was another defensive-oriented game and Carter shot just 6-for-18, while Davis played well. Mutombo was a beast on the glass, with 17 rebounds keying a narrow 76ers edge.
It was still just an 88-87 Philadelphia lead, and Carter had one last shot to redeem himself. His fallaway jumper at the buzzer missed and the Sixers had survived.
It looked like it would be a standard homecourt series through the first four games. Allen was on fire in Milwaukee for Games 1 & 2, leading a 104-92 win to get it started, and then knocking down 28 points in a tight 91-90 that gave the Bucks a 2-0 series lead.
Charlotte was able to answer, and they played with an intensity that Milwaukee came nowhere close to matching in Game 3. The Hornets dominated the boards, to the tune of 57-35 , with P.J. Brown getting 16 rebounds. Brown was a good rebounder all year, but no good team is beaten on the glass that badly unless they lack intensity. Milwaukee did and it nearly cost them everything.
The Hornets kept it rolling with an 85-78 win in Game 4, as they outscored the Bucks 21-7 on the free throw line. Just when you were expecting the home teams to keep holding serve, Charlotte then went back to the Midwest and stole a 94-86 win, forcing Allen into a bad shooting night and putting his team on the brink.
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to miss an opportunity. The Hornets held a 10-point lead at halftime of Game 6 on their home floor. But Mashburn could not answer the bell. The Bucks defense forced the star into a 5-of-20 game. Meanwhile, Cassell did what a veteran does, and drained 33 points with his team’s season on the line. Allen and Robinson combined for 52 more and with a second-half surge and 104-97 win, we were going to Milwaukee for Game 7.
Mashburn would again be frustrated by the Bucks’ defense in the deciding game, shooting 7-for-29. For those of you counting at home, that makes Charlotte’s best player 12-for-49 (24 percent) from the floor in two close-out opportunities. Milwaukee used a 29-17 run through the third quarter to get some distance and their 104-95 win sent them to the conference finals.
2001 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Philadelphia-Milwaukee
The last time the 76ers had reached the NBA Finals was 1983, and the opponent they beat in this round was the Bucks. Things had come full circle.
After their Game 1 slipup to Toronto, Philadelphia came out stronger this time, with Iverson getting 34 points and the Sixers dominating the second quarter en route to a 93-85 win. But the news quickly got worse for Philadelphia–Iverson shot just 5-of-26 in Game 2, and with an injured tailbone, was ruled out for Game 3. The fact the Bucks picked up a 92-78 win in the second game only added to the urgency for Philadelphia.
Without Iverson, Game 3 back in Milwaukee was an ugly affair and the Bucks shot just 2-of-12 behind the arc. But they got an 80-74 win. The Philadelphia star returned for Game 4, and while no one really played well, this time it was the Sixers getting the ugly win, 89-83. Once again, the East’s #1 seed had won a Game 4 that was “thisclose” to must-win.
The series now took on a conspiratorial turn. There was strong speculation that the league wanted its MVP, coming from a more marquee franchise (at least compared to Milwaukee) to be the foil for Shaq and Kobe in the Finals. A 76ers-Lakers matchup was clearly more marketable than Bucks-Lakers, and the NBA has a unique track record of always getting these kinds of things to work out.
That’s my nice way of saying the league has, at minimum, earned the skepticism fans often give them. Stern had attended Game 4 in Milwaukee and when Iverson took a hard foul, cameras caught the commissioner rising to his feet as though his own son had been hurt. I’m sure there’s also innocent explanations for the behavior, but again–the NBA has a track record that has earned a jaundiced eye from fans.
The jaundiced eye became national news in Game 5 back in Philly. Officials whistled Milwaukee for two flagrant fouls and a technical foul. Philadelphia shot 28 free throws to Milwaukee’s 16, enough to swing the balance in a game the 76ers won 89-88. After the game, Ray Allen–a man not known for rhetorical brickbats–said bluntly that the league wanted the 76ers in the Finals.
Allen went back home to Milwaukee and did something about it in Game 6. While Iverson was in MVP form, scoring 46 points, Allen almost matched that with 41 points and Milwaukee had more support. Robinson knocked down 22, Cassell handed out 11 assists and a 110-100 win set up yet another Game 7 in these Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Bucks were still playing without suspended forward Scott Williams, one more facet of an equation that has led even neutral observers to conclude something was fishy about the league’s handling of the Eastern Conference Finals (as it turned out, this was just an opening act for the NBA’s complete rigging of the following year’s Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings).
Unfortunately, the controversy detracted from, and tainted some great basketball, and Iverson scored 44 points with all the money on the table. Mutombo had 23 points/19 rebounds, and Milwaukee’s trio all went over 20 points in Game 7. It was Iverson and Mutombo who gradually pulled away, in a game that ultimately ended 108-91.
Philadelphia kept its magic going one more game, upsetting the Lakers on the road in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the only game Los Angeles lost in the 2001 NBA playoffs. The 76ers were outmatched by this point, but they were one part of a great Eastern Conference postseason that gave fans some thrills and something to argue about before the Laker coronation.