2001: Lakers versus Sixers Round Three (David versus Goliath)

Background

The Lakers were eager to repeat as champions in 2001, but the regular season was fraught with turmoil and injuries. Shaquille O’Neal beginning the season out of shape and Kobe Bryant‘s individual improvement caused major conflict between the two stars. Despite their feud, Los Angeles was able to come together late in the season and finish with an eight-game win streak to claim the number two seed with a 56-26 record. In the playoffs, the Lakers pushed their game to a higher level and swept the first three rounds of the playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs in sequence. Their 11-0 start made them only the second team in history to sweep the conference playoffs, and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals for the second straight season looking to repeat as champions.

The 76ers struggled mightily in the ’90s after trading away franchise superstar Charles Barkley before the 1993 season. They earned the number-one overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, selecting six-foot guard Allen “The Answer” Iverson out of Georgetown. Building around their star, Philadelphia returned to relevance in the late ’90s. In 2001, the 76ers won a conference-best 56 games, good enough to earn Iverson the MVP award and Larry Brown the Coach of the Year award. In the playoffs they eliminated the reigning Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers in five games. In the semifinals, Philadelphia outlasted the Toronto Raptors in seven games after Vince Carter’s series-winning attempt missed, and in the Eastern Conference Finals the 76ers survived another seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks to reach the Finals for the first time since 1984.

Lineups

Despite missing most of the season with injury, Derek Fisher returned as the starting point guard in the playoffs for the Lakers next to superstar Kobe Bryant at shooting guard. Rick Fox stepped in as the small forward next to veteran free agent signee Horace Grant at power forward and the unstoppable force Shaquille O’Neal at center.

Tyronn Lue served as Fisher’s primary backup at point guard in the playoffs, and Brian Shaw continued to backup Bryant at shooting guard. Three-time champion Robert Horry was still the first big man off the bench at power forward. Ron Harper saw limited time in the playoffs as the third point guard, and Mark Madsen played few minutes as O’Neal’s backup at center.

Sixth Man of the Year Aaron McKie earned the starting point guard spot in the playoffs next to league MVP Allen Iverson. Jumaine Jones also emerged to claim the starting small forward spot next to Tyrone Hill at power forward and mid-season acquisition and Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo at center.

Regular season starting point guard Eric Snow moved to the bench in the playoffs, and rookie Raja Bell served as the primary backup on the wing. Matt Geiger served sparingly as Mutombo’s backup at center, while Kevin Ollie, George Lynch, Rodney Buford, and Todd MacCulloch all saw few minutes playing in the Finals.

Game One: 76ers 107, Lakers 101 (OT)

The Lakers, undefeated in the playoffs, were the overwhelming favorite entering game one at home, and they looked formidable jumping out to an early double-digit lead. Iverson and the 76ers refused to roll over though, as The Answer  brought Philadelphia back with a 30-point first half. The second half evenly matched, and the Lakers came back to tie the score but neither team could get a good shot off to win before the buzzer. In overtime, Iverson rediscovered his shot, scoring seven points in the period, including a stepback jumper with Tyronn Lue smothering him–the MVP proceeded to taunt Lue by stepping over him after the Laker guard fell over contesting the shot. A running two by Snow iced the victory for the 76ers, and they took game one behind Iverson’s 48 points and Mutombo’s 13 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Shaq was a dominant force with 44 points and 20 rebounds for Los Angeles, but Kobe struggled shooting only 7/22 from the floor.

Game Two: 76ers 89, Lakers 98

Looking to even up the series, the Lakers rode the steady offensive play of Shaq and Kobe throughout game two and managed to build up a substantial lead late in the second half. A series of turnovers and miscues, however, allowed the 76ers to climb back into the game late in the fourth, but timely three’s by Fisher and Shaw helped Los Angeles stave off their opponents. Kobe finished with 31/8/6–his best game in the NBA Finals to this point–and Shaq had an astounding near QUADRUPLE-double of 28/20/9/8. Iverson was relatively quiet with only 23 points, and the Lakers had now tied up the series heading back to Philadelphia.

Game Three: Lakers 96, 76ers 91

The Lakers started hot behind Kobe and Shaq and built a ten-point lead by halftime. The 76ers climbed back into the game in the second half with Iverson’s high-volume scoring and added support from Mutombo and Snow on offense. Philadelphia trimmed the lead to one in the fourth quarter after both Fisher and Shaq fouled out, but a clutch three from Horry with less than a minute left sealed the win for Los Angeles. Kobe finished with 32 points to lead the Lakers, Shaq had 30/12 before fouling out, and Horry chipped in with 15 points off the bench. Iverson scored 35 points and pulled down a surprising 12 rebounds, Mutombo had 23/12, and Snow chipped in 14 points, but the Lakers now held a 2-1 series lead.

Game Four: Lakers 100, 76ers 86

Shaq and Kobe were again unstoppable in game four, as the Lakers built a double-digit lead by halftime again. The center finished with an impressive 34/14/5, and Kobe was one assist shy of a triple-double. Iverson scored a game-high 35 points, but he had little help outside of Mutombo. After dropping game one, Los Angeles had now pushed the 76ers to the brink of elimination.

Game Five: Lakers 108, 76ers 96

Fighting to stay alive, the 76ers came out hot and led after the first quarter with Iverson hitting four of his first five shots. The Lakers came roaring back, however, behind the hot shooting of Fisher and Fox who combined to make nine three’s in the game. Holding on down the stretch, Kobe and Shaq combined for 54 points and 25 rebounds, and Los Angeles won their fourth straight game of the Finals. Snow, Mutombo, and Hill all had impressive games with each contributing double-doubles to support Iverson’s 37 points, but the victory gave the Lakers their second straight NBA championship.

Aftermath

Thanks to his consistently superb play, Shaquille O’Neal won his second straight NBA Finals MVP award, making him only the third player in history to do so. The Lakers would return the following season looking to complete the “Three-peat,” a feat Phil Jackson accomplished twice with the Bulls. A controversial seven-game series victory over in-state rival the Sacramento Kings sent the Lakers back to the Finals in 2002, with a chance to win again.

Despite Iverson’s Herculean effort in the game one victory, the 76ers could not prevent the Lakers from repeating. The team would struggle to overcome injuries during the next season and would only make the playoffs two out of the next four years. Larry Brown eventually left to coach the Detroit Pistons, and Allen Iverson’s trade in 2006 would hasten a decade-long rebuilding process.

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