2000: Lakers versus Pacers (The Lakers are Back)

Background

After Magic Johnson’s retirement in 1991, the Lakers struggled to contend. In 1996, they signed All-Star center Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal to a lucrative deal and drafted high-flying guard Kobe Bryant out of high school. The team returned to contention with the signing of Phil Jackson as head coach in 1999. In the 2000 season, Los Angeles raced out to a 67-win season, with winning streaks of 11, 16, and 19 games–a league-best. In the first round the Lakers outlasted the Sacramento Kings in five games after dropping two on the road. In the second round, Los Angeles easily dispatched the Phoenix Suns in another five game series. The Western Conference Finals pitted the Lakers against the well-balanced Portland Trailblazers. The series went seven games, with Los Angeles advancing after overcoming a 16-point deficit in the last game–capped off with an alley-oop from Bryant to Shaq–sending Los Angeles to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991.

Before they joined the NBA, the Indiana Pacers were the most successful ABA franchise, winning three ABA championships. They had emerged as NBA contenders as early as 1994, but in the ’90s they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals four different times–twice at the hands of the New York Knicks. In 2000 it appeared as though their time had finally come to reach the championship series. The Pacers raced out to a 56-win season, good enough for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In the first round, Indiana struggled to put away the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. In the second round they met the Philadelphia 76ers, ultimately defeating them in six games. In the Eastern Conference Finals they again met their rival New York Knicks. Finally, the Pacers earned their revenge by toppling the Knicks in six games, punching their ticket to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Lineups

The Lakers started a tall back court with three-time champion Ron Harper at point guard next to All-Star youngster Kobe Bryant at shooting guard. Clutch shooter Glen Rice was acquired to start at small forward in the front court next to veteran two-time champion A.C. Green at power forward and league MVP Shaquille O’Neal at center.

Off the bench, Derek Fisher served as Harper’s primary backup at point guard, and journeyman Brian Shaw backed up Bryant at shooting guard. Rick Fox served as the backup small forward, and two-time champion Robert Horry was the backup power forward. Travis Knight and John Salley saw limited time in the Finals backing up O’Neal at center, and rookie Devean George played little in the NBA Finals.

The Pacers started veteran Mark Jackson at point guard next to clutch-shooting All-Star Reggie Miller at shooting guard. Most Improved Player Jalen Rose started at small forward in the front court next to bruiser Dale Davis at power forward and former All-Star seven-footer Rik Smits at center.

Travis Best served as Jackson’s backup at point guard, and Derrick McKey functioned as the primary backup on the wing. Young big man Austin Croshere was the main backup at power forward, and veteran Sam Perkins played backup center in the NBA Finals for his third different team. Jonathan Bender, Chris Mullin, and Zan Tabak played sparingly in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Pacers 87, Lakers 104

Shaq was dominant in the first game of the series, tallying 43 points and 19 rebounds after the Lakers coasted to the victory thanks to a 15-point lead after the first quarter. Kobe, Harper, and Fox chipped in as support with a combined 37 points. The Pacers made charges after falling behind but couldn’t overcome the deficit. Reggie Miller struggled mightily in his Finals’ debut, finishing 1/16 from the field, and Rose and Smits failed to produce as well in the game one loss.

Game Two: Pacers 104, Lakers 111

The two teams were evenly matched in the first quarter, but the Lakers suffered a major setback when Kobe twisted his ankle early in the second after tripping over Rose’s foot on a jumpshot–Rose later admitted it was intentional. Despite losing Bryant, Los Angeles rallied around Shaq, who set an NBA record with 39 free throw attempts after Pacers’ coach Larry Bird employed the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. O’Neal came through in the fourth quarter, converting 9/16 FT’s in the fourth quarter to maintain a slim lead. Shaq finished with another monster 40 points and 24 rebound, supported by 21 points apiece from Harper and Rice. Rose led Indiana with 30 points as Miller struggled again–7/16 for 21 points. Croshere chipped in with 24 off the bench but the Lakers now led the series two games to none heading back to Indiana.

Game Three: Lakers 91, Pacers 100

Kobe’s absence due to the twisted ankle was a major factor in game three as Indiana raced out to an eight-point lead after the first quarter. Shaq kept the Lakers in contention throughout the rest of the game with a relatively “tame” 33/13, but he made only 3 of 13 foul shots. Miller finally broke out with 33 points to lead the Pacers, helped by Rose’s 21 points and a combined 26 points from Croshere and Best off the bench. Los Angeles closed to within three points in the fourth quarter but could not complete the comeback as the Pacers won their first game of the series.

Game Four: Lakers 120, Pacers 118 (OT)

The Pacers again jumped out to an early lead thanks to Rik Smits rediscovering his offensive game. Kobe returned but was limited in the first half to only six points, but the Lakers stayed close despite foul trouble. In the third quarter Los Angeles finally stole the lead back, and it was a tight game up to the end of regulation when it was still tied. O’Neal fouled out early in the overtime period, but Kobe took control of the game with three big baskets–including the eventual game-winner. Miller missed a three at the buzzer, and the Lakers now held a 3-1 series lead. Shaq finished with 36 and 21 before fouling out, and Bryant delivered a much-needed 28 points. Miller scored 35 points to lead Indiana alongside Smits’ 24-point outburst, but the Pacers now faced elimination.

Game Five: Lakers 87, Pacers 120

The Pacers were not at all interested in watching the Lakers celebrate the NBA championship at the Conseco Fieldhouse, and their play was exemplary. Reggie Miller made five straight shots at the start, including a four-point play, and Indiana never looked back. Shaq was again dominant with 35 points and 11 rebounds, but no one else for Los Angeles stepped up–Kobe finished 4 for 20 from the field. Rose and Miller led the way with 32 and 25 respectively, and the supporting cast helped send the series back to Los Angeles.

Game Six: Pacers 111, Lakers 116

The Pacers again held the lead after first quarter thanks to a half-court prayer from Mark Jackson, but a three to close out the half from Kobe helped reclaim the momentum. In the fourth, timely three’s from Fisher, Fox, and Horry were crucial in climbing out of a 12-point deficit, and an acrobatic three-point play from Shaq put the Lakers ahead for good. In the final minutes, Kobe sank several clutch free throws, and Los Angeles clinched the franchise’s first championship since 1988. Shaq finished with 41 points and 12 rebounds, and Kobe had 26 and 1o despite struggling from the field. The Pacers went down shooting as Miller, Rose, and Davis combined for 74 points.

Aftermath

Behind series averages of 38 points and nearly 17 rebounds per game, Shaquille O’Neal was a runaway choice as the 2000 NBA Finals MVP. The championship was the franchise’s 12th, and they would return the following season hell-bent on repeating. Though they weren’t nearly as dominant in the regular season, Kobe’s continued improvement made him and Shaq an unstoppable duo, and the Lakers swept their way through the playoffs to reach the 2001 NBA Finals.

The Pacers underwent significant changes after their Finals loss. Larry Bird would not return as coach, Rik Smits retired, and Mark Jackson signed with Toronto in the offseason. Dale Davis was traded to Portland to acquire up-and-coming PF/C Jermaine O’Neal. Indiana would remain a contender and reach the Eastern Conference Finals three more times (2004, 2013, 2014), but would fail to reach the NBA Finals again.

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