Lakers win series, 4-1
Game 1: June 6
76ers 107, Lakers 101 (OT)
Opening Statement Is Made by 76ers
Shaquille O'Neal leaned down to the microphone and looked across the room, and perhaps across two months and five days of something close to perfection, a stretch of dynamic basketball that put the Lakers into the NBA Finals against what all agreed was an overmatched team.
Postseason perfection was dead, gone in a rain of jumpers by Allen Iverson, gone in a defense more frantic than their own, gone, perhaps, in a nine-day layoff. It took an overtime, and 48 points by Iverson, and a handful of their own poor decisions and missed free throws, but the Lakers suddenly found themselves looking up, not at history, but at the very plucky Philadelphia 76ers.
"Now," O'Neal said, "it's a series."
More than they know, perhaps.
The 76ers defeated the favored Lakers, 107-101, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center, reclaiming the home-court advantage they lost on the last day of the regular season and reminding the Lakers that this championship won't be preordained.
O'Neal scored 44 points and took 20 rebounds, but he missed 12 free throws, including seven of his last 10. It was the second time in Finals history that opposing players scored 40 or more points in the same game.
What the Lakers will remember, for a day at least, is that Iverson scored seven of the 76ers' last 11 points, and that as a result the Lakers blew a five-point lead with three minutes left in the overtime. From a 99-94 deficit, the 76ers scored nine consecutive points while the Lakers had two turnovers and two point-blank misses.
Kobe Bryant, who was seven for 22 from the field and scored only 15 points, less than half his playoff average, brought the Lakers to within 103-101 with a 20-foot turnaround with 31 seconds remaining, but the Lakers didn't score again.
"We might have shocked a lot of people. I don't think we shocked ourselves. We knew we had a lot of confidence coming in. They eat like us and put their clothes on like us, so it wasn't about that."
Not Quite As Easy As Lakers Wanted
Game 2: June 8
Lakers 98, 76ers 89
It was going to be frantic. It could only be.
When Allen Iverson said the Philadelphia 76ers would "spread the war," maybe no one believed him. Maybe no one believed they'd get dirty.
But by the end of Game 2, Kobe Bryant and Iverson stood near mid-court, jaw to jaw, edge to edge, Iverson telling Bryant what's next, Bryant telling him so what.
The NBA Finals have become that, the Lakers 98-89 winners in Game 2 at Staples Center, the 76ers emboldened by their split in Los Angeles, the whole thing as taut as the sudden fury between the star guards.
The best-of-seven series is tied at a game apiece, with Games 3, 4 and 5 in Philadelphia.
Meantime, the Lakers got an idea of what it would take to win a game in the face of 76er grit and resistance. They went to Shaquille O'Neal, who scored 28 points, took 20 rebounds and tied a Finals record with eight blocked shots. The Lakers blocked 13, a Finals record. O'Neal also had nine assists.
Finally, they went to a more desperate, more physical defense on Iverson, who scored 23 points on 29 shots, two days after scoring 48 on 41. When he wasn't talking to Bryant, Iverson usually was lobbying referee Steve Javie, because Derek Fisher and Tyronn Lue and Bryant were too close and too rough, he believed. He had four free throws and missed them all. In Game 1, he was nine for nine.
So at the end, when the Lakers scored nine of the last 12 points, when they snuffed the last bit of 76er hope, maybe that was why Iverson grinned and clapped at the end, as if this was the best part of all. They'll go to Philadelphia, where Bryant will be derided, where Iverson will cup his hand to his ear and ask for more, where the next three games will be as raw as any the Lakers have played this season.
"Coach wanted me to protect the basket more. We felt they were getting too many easy shots in the first half. So I just tried to step up my defense in the second half."
Horry Dials Long Distance
Game 3: June 10
Lakers 96, 76ers 91
While a town acquainted itself with this Robert Horry guy, the forward with the balky gait who flung a three-pointer straight into the heart it keeps talking about having, Kobe Bryant waved his hand.
"I don't know why you're surprised," he said, laughing. "Robert does this all the time. He does. He's sneaky about it. . . . [But] that's Robert for you."
The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 96-91, in Game 3 at First Union Center, where the NBA Finals changed course again. The Lakers lead the best-of-seven series, two games to one, in part because Horry scored the Lakers' final seven points, all of them in the last 47.1 seconds, all of them with Shaquille O'Neal on the bench, having fouled out.
In a place panting over a home team that has worn its perceptions of disrespect to the bone, the Lakers retook command of the Finals the moment Horry stepped into the place left by O'Neal.
Later, Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown marveled at how he's able to do this with his NBA mutts and novices, and O'Neal put Dikembe Mutombo on his list of centers unwilling or unable to play him "like a man," and Allen Iverson noted with some pride that the 76ers hadn't yet been blown out.
But first Horry had to do his thing, which typically comes with an easy lope and half-shut eyes, but not this time. This time, he stood in the left corner, diagonally across the floor from O'Neal, watched the ball swing along the perimeter, Bryant to Brian Shaw to him. He received the pass with the Lakers ahead by only one point, flipped the ball away, and pumped his fists when the Lakers were ahead by four, 92-88, with just more than 47 seconds remaining.
And while the 76ers pulled to 92-91 on their next possession, Horry made two free throws with 21.3 seconds remaining for a 94-91 lead. Then he rebounded Iverson's miss with 9.5 seconds remaining, then made two more free throws.
"We have heart too. We just don't go out and boast and brag about it."
Ultimate Goal Is Within Sight
Game 4: June 13
Lakers 100, 76ers 98
The Lakers are a win from repeating last year's NBA championship, a win from initiating the breathless talk of a new dynasty, one they surely believe would coincide with the career paths of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 100-86, in Game 4 at First Union Center for a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals, and so they are on the verge of the end. The hugs at the final buzzer were a little tighter. The high fives were harder. The smiles pulled at the corners of their mouths.
O'Neal scored 34 points, many on dunks the force of which appeared to startle 76er center Dikembe Mutombo, and the Lakers made 10 three-point baskets to bring themselves to the brink of their championship, which would be the eighth in Los Angeles Laker history.
Bryant took only 13 shots and scored 19 points. He had 10 rebounds and nine assists. The Laker bench--Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue and Ron Harper--combined to make seven of 10 three-point attempts, so only a brief fourth-quarter surge by the 76ers made the score as close as it was.
Asked if the result of the series was inevitable, Harper grinned. The Lakers haven't lost an elimination game in the postseason.
After 15 playoff games, the Lakers have won 14. The loss was in overtime, eight days ago. No champion has gone unbeaten on the road, where the Lakers are 7-0. Game 5 is in Philadelphia.
They outshot and outrebounded the 76ers in a game that never drifted into the frantic pace preferred by the energetic Allen Iverson, who made seven of his last 10 shots, many after the Lakers had run off, and scored 35 points.
"That team starts with Shaquille O'Neal and ends with Shaquille O'Neal."
A Nearly Perfect Ending to Season
Game 5: June 15
Lakers 108, 76ers 96
Kobe Bryant sat alone in a shower, the voices of his teammates echoing off the tiles. Exhausted, a little sad, utterly satisfied, he cradled a championship trophy in his arms.
Not far away, Shaquille O'Neal danced and sang in a 10-magnum champagne spray, presented by his teammates.
Theirs are the faces of another championship season for the Lakers, their second in a row. The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 108-96, in Game 5 at First Union Center to win the NBA title.
Robert Horry observed his teammates from the doorway, and marveled at what they had done, and he along with them. Terribly flawed in the regular season, the Lakers grew and became the best postseason team in NBA history. They lost once, in overtime, from five points ahead in overtime, and won 15 games. They won all eight road games, showing poise few saw in them.
Maybe they'll never again have to think about the cold winter days when they could barely meet each other's eyes. Maybe that's what dripped from their deep purple uniforms, that and flat-out joy, as big and bold as some had ever felt.
O'Neal, who averaged 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds and had 17 blocks in five games, was most valuable player of the Finals for the second consecutive year. Indeed, he has changed his legacy in only two seasons, from the man who could not win to the man starting a collection of championship trophies.
At 22, Bryant has won two titles, and he moved afterward with a glaze in his eyes, as though it weren't altogether real.
O'Neal had 29 points and 13 rebounds and Bryant had 26 points and 12 rebounds. Derek Fisher scored 18 points, all on six three-pointers in eight attempts, two in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers held off the 76ers.
"We were just out to prove that we can do it this time around. We just went through so much adversity, so much ups and downs. It was good to win it. You have mixed emotions. But as far as a dynasty, I don't know. We'll see what happens."