in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The Los Angeles Lakers return to the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years by beating the Portland Trail Blazers 89-84 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals at the Staples Center. The Lakers trailed 71-55 late in the third quarter before staging a furious rally to beat the Blazers. The rally was capped by Shaquille O’Neal, slamming home an alley-oop from Kobe Bryant. The Lakers would go on to win the NBA Championship.
As a new millennium began, it was a new era for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Forum in Inglewood was gone, the Lakers had a brand new arena with the opening of a new state in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The Lakers also had a new coach, hiring Phil Jackson. Over the last three years, the Lakers had a talented team that suffered letdowns in the playoffs, as Kobe Bryant was developing into a star, while Shaquille O’Neal looked to claim the mantle held by Michael Jordan as the best player in the NBA. Shaq won the NBA MVP in 2000, leading the Lakers to a 67-15 record. The Lakers were tested in the first round, needing five games to get past the Sacramento Kings. In the second round, the Lakers would eclipse the Phoenix Suns four games to one.
Coached by former Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy, the Portland Trail Blazers reached the Western Conference Finals in 1999 and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers posted a record of 59-23 in 2000, despite dealing with several off-court incidents that earned the team the derisive nickname Jail Blazers. The Blazers took down the Minnesota Timberwolves in four games in the first round and stunned the Utah Jazz in five games to reach the Western Conference Finals.
In Game 1, at the Staples Center, Shaquille O’Neal was at his dominant best, scoring a game-high 41 points with 11 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocked shots. The Lakers would win easily 109-94. The Lakers would stumble in Game 2. Shaq and Kobe combined for just 35 points, as the Lakers were embarrassed on their own floor 106-77. The hack a Shaq game plan worked perfectly for Portland as he made just 5-of-17 shots from the free-throw line.
As the series shifted to the Rose Garden for Game 3, the Trail Blazers had their chance to take control of the series. Portland held a 55-44 lead at the half as all five starters reached double figures. However, with Shaw scoring a game-high 26 points and Kobe Bryant adding 25, the Lakers rallied to win the game 93-91 as Kobe blocked a potential game-tying shot by Aryvdas Sabonis at the buzzer. Rasheed Wallace scored 34 points for Portland in Game 4, but it was not enough as the Lakers won 103-91 to take a 3-1 lead. Shaquille O’Neal scored 25 points while Glenn Rice had 21 to lead the way for LA.
With a chance to close the series out in five games, the Lakers suffered a letdown at home, losing 96-85. This was despite 31 points from Shaquille O’Neal. Facing elimination, the Blazers got 22 points from Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. With Steve Smith scoring 26 points and Bonzi Wells adding 20 off the bench, the Blazers recorded a 103-93 win in Game 6 to force a seventh game.
Rasheed Wallace was on fire in Game 7 in Los Angeles, scoring a game-high 30 points. The Blazers lead from the start, building a 16-point lead late in the third quarter. As fans at Staples Center watched in stunned disbelief, the Lakers began their comeback. Dominating the fourth by outscoring Portland 31-13. Kobe and Shaq each scored nine points in the final quarter, while Brian Shaw and Robert Horry had six points apiece off the bench. The Lakers would seal the game when Kobe Bryant fed Shaq for a thunderous alley-oop that nearly blew the roof off the new arena. The Lakers would win 89-84 and advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991.
The Lakers would win the NBA Finals in six games, beating the Indiana Pacers. It would be the first of three consecutive NBA Championships for the Lakers and Phil Jackson.