The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers discovered a nearly perfect way to produce a Hollywood sequel that lived up to the hype. They simply stormed to a record-setting 15-1 record and .937 winning percentage during the postseason, the most dominating run in league playoff history.
"It's just part of a dream come true," Shaquille O'Neal said after the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in five games to win the 2001 NBA Finals. "The last 15, 20 games, we became a great team. I'm happy. I'm also greedy. I'm going to try to get leaner and meaner and get another one next year."
The Lakers left their stamp on history by embarking on a stretch in which they won 23 of 24 games beginning on April 1, including a record-breaking 8-0 playoff road record, making them the only team in NBA history to go unbeaten away from home in the postseason.
O'Neal averaged 33 points and 15.8 rebounds against Philadelphia to claim his second consecutive Finals MVP award. Kobe Bryant averaged 24.6 points and 5.8 assists, and he notched 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in Game 5, a 108-96 series-clinching victory in his hometown of Philadelphia.
After the Finals, Lakers forward Horace Grant was asked many times the Lakers could repeat their feat. "With Shaq (29) and Kobe (22) at the age they are," he said, "I give it eight, nine more times."
"Shaq has got more in him," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who won in his eighth trip to the NBA Finals in as many tries, tying Red Auerbach, who won nine league titles with Boston. "I expect him to have more than two championships before he's finished with this game."
The Lakers entered the Finals having swept Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio to reach the cusp of the 13th crown in franchise history. They faced the 76ers, led by the mercurial Allen Iverson, the regular-season scoring champion and MVP. Buoyed by the midseason trade that brought All-Star center Dikembe Mutombo to Philadelphia, the Sixers had reached the Finals for the first time in 18 years after enduring grueling seven-game conquests of Toronto and Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals.
Philadelphia had acquired Mutombo, the four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, for this very scenario, believing he was one of the few centers who could make life difficult for the 7-1, 315-pound O'Neal. From the opening tip of Game 1 at STAPLES Center, those hopes would quickly vanish.
O'Neal poured in 44 points and swiped 20 rebounds in Game 1, but he was overshadowed by a man 13 inches shorter and 150 pounds lighter. Iverson, who ached from the physical pounding he took every game of the season, put a hurting on the Lakers by scoring 48 points in Philadelphia's 107-101 overtime triumph.
The Sixers grabbed a 1-0 series lead and the home-court advantage, at the same time ending the Lakers' 19-game winning streak and 11-game postseason winning skein.
"I don't think we shocked ourselves," said Philadelphia forward Tyrone Hill. "We had a lot of confidence coming in."
Iverson outscored O'Neal, and Bryant was 7-for-22 from the field with only 15 points. That wasn't going to happen every night, and Philadelphia knew it. As it turned out, so did the Lakers, who had no choice but to recapture their focus, and quickly.
"I'm kind of relieved that it's over in some way," Jackson said. "The streak was great, and now it's time to get back to the business of playing ball here in this series."
Two nights later, the Lakers did just that. Bryant registered 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, but it was O'Neal who slacked the jaws of the L.A. faithful as he flirted with a quadruple-double. He finished with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and a Finals record-tying eight blocks in a 98-89 Lakers victory that tied the series.
"I knew this was going to be a different game," O'Neal said. "My guards played big. We felt (the 76ers) were getting too many easy shots in the first half, so I just tried to step up my defense in the second half."
The Lakers fought off a late Philadelphia run, thanks in part to a key three-pointer by Derek Fisher. They held Iverson to 23 points, but he was undeterred after the loss.
"Nobody's going to walk over the top of us," he said, looking ahead to three games in Philadelphia. "Won't happen."
Three nights later, inside the pulsating First Union Center, O'Neal fouled out with 2:21 remaining and L.A. nursing a one-point lead. With Bryant having cooled off after scoring 20 points in the first half, it would be up to someone else to play the hero.
Enter Robert Horry, stage left. The veteran forward scored the Lakers' final seven points of the game -- all in the final 47.1 seconds -- including the back-breaking three-pointer that led to a 96-91 triumph and a 2-1 series lead.
"You've got to be fearless," said Horry, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and defended Mutombo effectively down the stretch. "You go out there and do what you need to do."
Said Jackson, "That's the reason he plays fourth quarters for us -- his ability to defend and also make key shots. And he was big tonight."
In the process, Horry helped the Lakers rekindle their momentum. And as Game 4 unfolded in Philadelphia, that momemtum picked up speed and power with every dunk powered down by O'Neal, who bulled his way to 34 points in a 100-86 verdict that gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1 edge in the series.
During the regular season, O'Neal uttered his opinion that "everyone looks little against me," and in Game 4, it was Mutombo's turn to concur. Not even he could get in the way of O'Neal, who after the game said through a steely glare, "I'm on a mission. I'm very focused."
So was every other man wearing purple and gold. Bryant had 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, and Horry, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue and Ron Harper came off the bench to combine for seven three-pointers.
Despite Los Angeles' strong team effort, the Sixers knew who powered the Lakers.
"We've got to go back to the drawing board and see what we can do to contain that type of player," said Iverson, who scored 35 points in defeat. "That team starts with Shaquille O'Neal and ends with Shaquille O'Neal."
But in the end, the Sixers had no solution to derail the Lakers' date with destiny. On Friday, June 15, the champagne sat chilling while the Lakers put the icing on a 108-96 victory to clinch back-to-back titles. O'Neal and Bryant each recorded double-doubles, Rick Fox scored 20 points and Fisher added 18.
The celebration began in a subdued manner on the First Union Center floor, but picked up steam in the Lakers' locker room, as O'Neal danced through a champagne shower, sprayed by his teammates from every angle.
"The first championship was just to get the monkey off my back," Shaq said. "Now, the ones I get from now on will just be to try to stamp my name in history ... for myself (and) whatever team I'm on."