The NBA belonged to Shaquille O'Neal all year, unqualified greatness finally secured by the Los Angeles Lakers' 7-1, 335-pound center. At age 28 and in his eighth season, O'Neal led the Lakers to their first title since Showtime's repeat champs of 1987-88. It was the 12th championship in franchise history, including five in Minneapolis.
The self-styled Superman was the near-unanimous league MVP and the All-Star Game co-MVP with San Antonio's Tim Duncan. Shaq made it a clean sweep by dominating Eastern Conference kingpin Indiana, emerging as the unanimous NBA Finals MVP as the Lakers defeated the Pacers in six games.
O'Neal had three 40-plus scoring efforts in the Finals, starting with 43 in Game 1 and finishing with 41 in Game 6. He averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds and played with poise and control through the Pacers' occasional "Hack-a-Shaq" strategies that tested his shaky foul shooting.
"He's the most dominating player in our league," Pacers coach Larry Bird said. "He was phenomenal throughout the series."
The Lakers rolled to a 104-87 victory in Game 1 as Pacers star Reggie Miller shot 1-for-16 from the field. Indiana was stronger in Game 2, as Jalen Rose scored 30 points, Austin Croshere added 24 and Miller had 21. To make matters worse for L.A., All-Star guard Kobe Bryant sprained his ankle early in the game when he landed on Rose's foot.
But O'Neal was again the deciding factor, setting an NBA record with 39 free-throw attempts. He made 18 to finish with 40 points, along with 24 rebounds, as the Lakers won 111-104. Glen Rice and Ron Harper scored 21 points apiece to take up the slack left by Bryant.
Down 2-0 in the series, the Pacers returned home and took advantage of Bryant's absence with a 100-91 victory in Game 3. Miller scored 33 points, hitting 11 of 22 from the field and all nine of his free throws. Rose supported Miller with 21 points, and Bird got vital firepower off the bench from Travis Best (14 points) and Croshere (12).
Coming into Game 4, Bryant's status was uncertain. He had been limping around in the two days between games, and Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't know how much he'd get from his youthful catalyst. What he got from Bryant left fans and the media alike in amazement, drawing inevitable comparisons between Bryant and Michael Jordan, another championship guard coached by Jackson.
After starting slowly -- he had only six points at the half as the Lakers trailed 54-51 -- Bryant turned on the jets after intermission. He produced 10 points in the third quarter and four more in the fourth in support of O'Neal's 14. The Pacers had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but Best's 15-foot jumper over a lunging O'Neal was an airball.
The Lakers were leading 115-112 when Shaq was whistled for his sixth foul with 2:33 left in overtime. At the bench, Shaq said, "Kobe looked over at me and said, 'Don't worry about it. I got it.' He was feelin' it."
Was he ever. After Pacers center Rik Smits scored inside to exploit O'Neal's absence, Kobe came down and nailed a 22-foot jumper to keep the lead at three. Jackson was spreading the court, abandoning the triangle offense and putting the ball in Bryant's hands. The message: Go get the best shot you can.
Indiana had a matchup advantage with Smits, who again scored easily with a hook. At the other end, it was Bryant right back, this time rising up from 23 feet to drill a jumper over Miller.
Two Miller free throws cut the deficit to one. When Kobe had a shot blocked by Smits, Brian Shaw was there to tap it in, pushing the L.A. lead back to three.
On successive possessions, Smits was fouled. Each time he hit one of two. Indiana was down 118-117 with 28.1 seconds left.
The Pacers knew where the Lakers were going and blanketed Bryant. Shaw hoisted up a running jumper to beat the 24-second clock, and it missed. Swooping in from beneath the basket was Bryant, elevating among the big men with perfect timing to put the ball back in, over his head. The clock showed 5.9 seconds.
With one last shot, the Pacers ran a play for their clutch marksman. Miller had the ball beyond the arc and let it fly against the full extension of 6-10 Robert Horry. The shot kissed off the the front of the rim and bounded high into the arms of Lakers forward Rick Fox.
The Lakers had prevailed 120-118. Bryant scored eight of his team's 16 points in overtime, falling one short of the Finals record shared by John Havlicek, Danny Ainge and Bill Laimbeer.
On a tender ankle, Bryant had played 47 minutes, hitting 14 of 27 shots for 28 points. O'Neal had 36 points and 21 rebounds. Miller, with 35 points, and Smits, with 24, led the more balanced Pacers.
"When Shaq fouled out, I said, 'This game just became a lot more interesting,'" Bryant said. "Pressure? No, I was too into the game to feel any pressure. To be honest, this is the kind of game I've always dreamed about."
One defeat away from elimination, Indiana was determined not to let the Lakers celebrate a title at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Driven to new heights by their wildly supportive fans, the Pacers downed the Lakers 120-87 in Game 5. Rose and Miller each went 5-for-5 in the first quarter, with Jalen hitting all three of his three-pointers and Reggie nailing both of his. It was 39-28 going into the second quarter and the Pacers kept pouring it on, building a 64-45 lead at the half.
The onslaught contined in the second half, with the fans chanting "Larry!" in a farewell to their departing coach. Rose finished with 32 points and Miller added 25. There would be a Game 6 in Los Angeles.
Running their record in elimination games to an unimpressive 3-6, the Lakers -- who had barely escaped Portland in the Western Conference Finals -- had questions to answer now. Most of them involved their inability to seize the opportunity to close out a series.
The Pacers were the aggressors in the early stages of Game 6, keeping the tempo upbeat and the pressure on from the outset. But O'Neal came roaring to life in the second quarter, hitting seven of 10 shots for 15 points. Even so, the Pacers led 56-53 at intermission, with Croshere delivering 10 points in the second quarter. Rose and Miller had combined for 23, and Bird had to feel good about his team's chances.
It was more Indiana in the third quarter. Miller, Rose and Mark Jackson combined for 24 of the Pacers' 28 points, with Shaq and Kobe struggling. The Lakers trailed by five, 94-89, heading into the fourth quarter. With 12 minutes to go, Game 7 looked very possible.
The Lakers came out strong. Backup guard Derek Fisher hit a quick three-pointer, then Shaq scored inside. Croshere and Horry traded three-pointers. Then, with 9:02 left, O'Neal took a pass from Bryant and scored inside, giving the Lakers a 92-91 lead, their first advantage since just before Mark Jackson's halfcourt three-pointer ended the first quarter.
With the score tied with 5:08 left, the Lakers gathered for one last push. Horry's runner in the lane put them up for keeps with 4:50 to go. Indiana kept cashing in at the foul line, and when Croshere hit two free throws with 1:32 left, the deficit was back down to one at 110-109.
Dale Davis then blocked a shot by Rice and, in a scramble for the rebound, Rice was fouled by Croshere. Rice's two free throws provided breathing room. After Miller misfired on a deep three, Bryant knocked in two free throws with 13 seconds to go for a five-point cushion.
Davis slammed one home with 5.4 seconds to go, but again Bryant was fouled and he coolly drained two more for a commanding 116-111 lead with 2.5 seconds left. That's how it ended after a deep shot by Miller bounded away into bedlam.
Kobe leaped into Shaq's arms for an extended embrace, the long journey having concluded at the top of the mountain. Lakers legend Magic Johnson came onto the floor and found Bird for a few emotional words.
"I told him how bittersweet it was for me, to win and see him hurt like that," Magic said of his great rival.
Shaq broke into tears, hugging his parents, his coach, his teammates. He accepted the Finals MVP trophy with the same words he'd used upon receiving the league MVP trophy, thanking "Phil Jackson, the real coach of the year."
It was Jackson's seventh championship as a coach. Coming into his first season away from Michael and Chicago, it seemed to validate his greatness as a coach, having guided the Lakers to 67 wins, then 15 more under playoff duress against Sacramento, Phoenix, Portland and Indiana.
After Game 6, Jackson's coaching counterpart in the Finals summed up the Lakers. "They have an opportunity to do something great for a number of years," Bird said.