Coming off their win in the 2001 NBA Finals and unparalleled 15-1 record in the playoffs, the Lakers were looking to “Three-peat,” but improvement around the league would make it a tougher feat. Despite the competition they won 58 games and earned the three seed in the playoffs. A Robert Horry game-winner capped off a sweep of the
Portland Trailblazers, and the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs in five to reach the Western Conference Finals against the top-seeded Sacramento Kings. After winning game one on the road, Los Angeles dropped the next two to fall behind 2-1. Game four saw an epic Lakers comeback end with another game-winner from Horry to tie the series. Sacramento won game five, but the Lakers again tied the series in a controversial game six that saw Los Angeles attempt 27 free throws in the 4th quarter to the Kings’ nine. The Lakers proceeded to win game seven in overtime to reach their third straight NBA Finals.
The Nets struggled mightily in the years leading up to the 2002 season, but first time head coach and former Laker Byron Scott hoped to enact a turnaround. The team traded for All-Star point guard Jason Kidd before the start of the season and raced through the East to a conference-best 52 wins–for his role, Kidd finished second in the voting for the MVP award. In the playoffs, New Jersey advanced after outlasting a tough Indiana Pacers team in the first round. In the second round, they defeated the Charlotte Hornets in five games to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history against the Boston Celtics. The teams split the first two games, but Paul Pierce led a dramatic comeback in game three to take a series lead. The Nets rebounded in a tight game four victory and won the last two games of the series to reach the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
Although he only started in half the games in the regular season, Derek Fisher returned as the starting point guard in time for the playoffs alongside All-Star Game MVP shooting guard Kobe Bryant. Rick Fox continued to start at small forward alongside new starting power forward Robert Horry and Shaquille O’Neal at center.
Seldom-used veteran Brian Shaw functioned as the backup at both guard positions in the playoffs, and youngster Devean George spelled Fox at small forward. Samaki Walker backed up both Horry and Shaq in the post. Regular season starter Lindsey Hunter saw limited time in the Finals, as did big men Stanislav Medvedenko and Mark Madsen and veteran Mitch Richmond.
Newcomer Jason Kidd started for the Nets at point guard alongside veteran shooting guard Kerry Kittles. Lanky small forward Keith Van Horn started next to 2000 number-one overall draft pick Kenyon Martin at power forward and former 76er Todd MacCulloch at center.
Off the bench, Anthony Johnson saw limited time as Kidd’s backup, and Lucious Harris spelled Kittles at shooting guard. Young small forward Richard Jefferson provided depth in the front court next to backup power forward Aaron Williams and backup center Jason Collins. Donny Marshall and Brian Scalabrine played little in the NBA Finals.
Game One: Nets 94, Lakers 99
Early on it looked as though the Lakers would run the Nets out of the arena after building a 15-point lead in the first quarter buoyed by Shaq converting eight of his first ten shots. Though the lead ballooned to as much as 23, Jason Kidd led a furious comeback that saw New Jersey draw to within three in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles staved off the Nets in the final minutes to win the first game of the series. Shaq finished with a monster 36/16 with four blocks, and Kobe chipped in 22 points and 6 assists. Kidd tallied a triple-double with 23/10/10, and Martin scored 21 points, but the Nets could not overcome their early deficit.
Game Two: Nets 83, Lakers 106
The Nets again started off sluggish and faced a 20-point deficit in the third quarter, in large part due to Shaq’s 23 first half points. A flurry of three’s brought New Jersey back to within single-digits in the fourth, but the Lakers were able to close out the win to take a 2-0 series lead. The Big Diesel finished with 40/12/8, Kobe scored 24 points, and Los Angeles shot 56% from downtown as a whole. Kidd has a near triple-double with 17/9/7, and Kittles led the Nets in scoring with 23, but the rest of the New Jersey supporting cast was non-existent.
Game Three: Lakers 106, Nets 103
Looking to push the Nets to the brink, the Lakers came out aggressive and led by eight after the first quarter. New Jersey stormed back late in the third with a 19-3 run and built a seven-point lead before Los Angeles came back with Shaq on the bench. Horry hit a three late in the fourth that gave the Lakers the lead for good, and Kobe hit a difficult shot in traffic while being hounded by Kidd to essentially seal the victory. With his best game of the series, Kobe finished with 36 points, and Shaq continued his excellent play with 35/11 and 4 blocks. Kidd led the Nets with 30/10, and Martin scored 26 points, but New Jersey now faced a 3-0 series deficit.
Game Four: Lakers 113, Nets 107
Behind 17 first quarter points, the Nets led after the first period for the first time in the series. The Lakers came back behind their perimeter-shooting and led by seven in the third quarter before Kidd keyed an 11-0 run by New Jersey. Kobe and Shaq kept the Lakers steady in the final period as they clinched the series victory and third straight championship for Los Angeles. Shaq led the way with 34/10, Kobe had 25/6/8, and Los Angeles made 57.9% of their three’s. Martin exploded for 35/11, and Lucious Harris chipped in 22 points off the bench, but Kidd struggled on only 5/14 shooting, and the Nets fell in a four game sweep–the first in the NBA Finals since 1995.
With their third straight championship, the Lakers joined the pantheon of NBA greatness. Shaq deservedly won his third consecutive NBA Finals MVP award, becoming only the second player in history to do so. Los Angeles would struggle to start the following season, however, and a loss in the Western Conference semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs would end their reign atop the NBA. A revamped roster in 2004 allowed the Lakers to reach the NBA Finals again, looking for their fourth title in the Shaq-Kobe era.
Despite being swept in the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance, the Nets would return in 2003 looking to win their coveted title. In the off-season, they looked to bolster their defense by acquiring four-time DPOY Dikembe Mutombo. After winning their division again, New Jersey defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round and then swept the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in sequence to reach the NBA Finals for the second straight season.