The Los Angeles Lakers had suffered playoff disappointment in both 1998 and 1999. Despite the ballyhooed arrival of Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando, the Lakers were swept out of the 1998 Western Conference Finals by the Utah Jazz and eliminated by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 1999 playoffs. A coaching change was made. Phil Jackson was brought on to lead the 2000 Los Angeles Lakers, to get Shaq and Kobe Bryant to play as a team and blend in the other component parts.
Those component parts consisted of small forwards Glen Rice and Rick Fox, sharpshooter Robert Horry and Ron Harper. Another young guard with a solid career ahead of him in Derek Fisher helped spell Bryant. With the two stars combining for 53 ppg, Shaq grabbing 14 rebounds a game and Bryant averaging seven boards and five assists, Jackson had the horses to go all the way and win his first championship apart from Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Los Angeles enjoyed a seven-game win streak around Thanksgiving and pushed its record to 15-4, and on December 11 started a 16-game win streak that included a 99-93 win over San Antonio. The Lakers were soaring at 31-5.
A four-game losing streak at the end of February, including a road loss to the Spurs, was the only bump in the road in a regular season that ended at a dazzling 67-15, the best the NBA had seen since the 1972 Lakers won 69. Shaq was named MVP and the team was a solid favorite to win its first championship since 1988.
Los Angeles met up with the #8 seed Sacramento Kings to open the playoffs. The first round was still a best-of-five at this time and the Lakers got off to fast start with two wins on their home floor. Shaq was completely outplaying his Kings counterpart Chris Webber, the talented, but inconsistent center who was the key to Sacramento’s success.
But this Laker team was still maturing and it showed when they tried to close. They had a five-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and lost. Webber again went toe-to-toe with Shaq in the fourth game and the Kings were able to create a decisive fifth game.
On May 5, the Lakers were ready to meet the test. Los Angeles got off to a fast start, Webber was the only King to make even the slightest impact and the favorites won 113-86. Elsewhere in the Western Conference, the Spurs were eliminated by Phoenix, preventing Shaq and Kobe from going through the defending champs and denying the basketball public an O’Neal-Tim Duncan battle in the low post.
Phoenix was coached by Danny Ainge, once a Laker nemesis when he played point guard for the Boston Celtics. But this team was no match for the 2000 version of the Lakers. The top seed came out blazing for a blowout win in Game 1 and then won closer games the next two times out.
The bugaboo of not being able to close quickly rose to the fore when the Suns won a Game 4 blowout, but a dominating defensive performance by Los Angeles ended the best-of-seven series in five games. The only real drama this second-round matchup provided was the storyline of Shaq playing his old Orlando teammate Anfernee Hardaway, now with the Suns. The two were supposed to win several titles together in the backyard of Disney. Instead, it would be Kobe who got the chance to fulfill that role with O’Neal.
The Portland Trail Blazers had ousted Utah in the second round and were set to face Los Angeles for the Western Conference title. The Jazz’s loss had prevented the Lakers from going through the 1997-98 West finalists, just as they would miss the defending champion Spurs.
I don’t say this to demean the Laker achievement—Utah was too old, San Antonio couldn’t match up with a well-coached Laker team and the conference finals about to come will show that the Trail Blazers were the best possible opponent. But in a league where beating the previous champ(s) seems to carry greater weight than in others, it was surely a letdown to Laker fans that they couldn’t take out the most recent West winners.
Phil Jackson was meeting up with an old friend—Scottie Pippen, the sidekick to Jordan during the Bulls dynasty, was looking to win a crown without MJ and came west to do it. He was joined by Rasheed Wallace in manning the wings. What the Blazers lacked was someone to bang with Shaq and a really good floor leader in the mold of Kobe.
Game 1 was a rout, with the Lakers using a 37-16 second quarter to key an easy win. They turned in an equally bad third quarter in Game 2 and the series went to the Pacific Northwest tied.
In the middle sequence of games, LA appeared to decisively swing the tide. A strong rebounding performance in Game 3 and a lockdown defensive effort in Game 4 produced two wins and put Los Angeles on the brink of the Finals with two more home games in their back pocket.
But have I mentioned the ’00 Lakers had issues with closing? A poor shooting game at home, followed by a no-show from Shaq in Game 6 and suddenly we were looking at a Game 7 on a Sunday afternoon in the Staples Center, the biggest game in the arena’s first year of existence.
June 4 proved to be a classic game. Portland looked like they were about to nail a mammoth upset, holding a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter. Then the Blazers completely melted down. Wallace’s 30 points weren’t enough to save his team from a non-performance by Pippen. In the battle of Jordan’s old coach and his old teammate, the coach rode Kobe’s 25 points/11 rebounds/7 assists game to the Finals.
Shaq hadn’t played well in the conference finals, especially in the seventh game and he needed to step it up if he were to start building a legacy. The opponent for the Finals was the Indiana Pacers. The city of Los Angeles would welcome back an old hero—Pacer shooting guard Reggie Miller, one of the game’s greatest three-point shooters in history—was a UCLA grad. The city would also welcome back an old foe—the Pacers were coached by Larry Bird.
So while it might have been an even juicier storyline had the Knicks and Pat Riley, the coach of the Showtime Lakers, won the East, playing Bird and Miller would still provide an ironic finish if Los Angeles could close the last series.
O’Neal was a beast in the first two games, scoring a combined 86 points and protecting Los Angele’s homecourt advantage. The series reverted to Indiana for the middle three games, with the Finals being the one round that operates on a 2-3-2 format. Shaq was tough again, with a 33/13 line, but Miller hit for 33 of his own in front of the home crowd and Indiana won.
Wednesday’s Game 4 was the game the Lakers needed—it went to overtime, Miller hit 35, but O’Neal answered with 36 and Los Angeles escaped with a two-point win. One win from a title they were blown out in Game 5 by a great combined effort from Miller and backcourt mate Jalen Rose.
But the last two games were in Hollywood and no one was really expecting a miracle from the Pacers. Indiana fought gamely, and led after three quarters, but Shaq was owning the 2000 Finals. He had a 41/12 night, Kobe kicked in with 26 and with a 116-111 win a new period of both Los Angeles Lakers history and NBA history was underway.