It was a sweeping statement by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Led by the unstoppable force of Shaquille O’Neal and the brilliant machinations of Phil Jackson who managed to create an acceptable workplace for two superstars to flourish, the Lakers joined the NBA's pantheon of greatness, winning their third straight title with a 113-107 Game 4 victory over the New Jersey Nets to complete a Finals sweep.
“I was sort of a great player that didn't have any championships,” O'Neal said. "Ever since I met Phil, now I have three.”
Called “a monster” by New Jersey coach Byron Scott, the 7-1, 350-pound O'Neal terrorized the Nets the entire series and collected 34 points and 10 rebounds in the clincher. Maintaining that he was on a mission, O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds as he demoralized every defense thrown at him and was a unanimous selection for his third straight NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award. O'Neal scored 145 points, setting a record for a four-game Finals. He also established historical marks with 68 free-throw attempts and 45 made, putting "Hack-a-Shaq" to rest, once and for all.
“I just knew I had to hit them,” O'Neal said. “In any part of this series, if I were to start missing them, they probably would go into the Hack-a-Shaq as a strategy. I didn't feel like going through that.”
In the first two games, O'Neal simply overpowered Nets centers Todd MacCulloch, Jason Collins and Aaron Williams, who were whistled for 47 fouls in the series. In the last two, he foiled double-teams and zones with smart passes that led to wide-open shots for his teammates.
“You can pick your poison,” said Nets star guard Jason Kidd. “You're going to watch Shaq dunk the ball all night, or you're going to hope that their outside shooters don't make [shots].”
Never was that more evident than in the fourth quarter of Game 4, when O'Neal appeared a bit less than his usual indestructible self. The Lakers continued a three-point barrage and the floor opened for Kobe Bryant, who overcame a lethargic start to score 11 of his 25 points in the decisive final period.
“If I see a gap in the first three quarters and I'm struggling, I'm not going to take it,” Bryant said. “I'll just wait for the right time.”
In addition to O’Neal, Bryant and Jackson, Robert Horry added a fifth championship ring to his collection, having won two with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995. Horry also became the first player in NBA history to be a member of two teams that swept the Finals.
“This is a good group with their focus,” Jackson said. “They have very good focus. They seem to build strength in a game. They knew that games aren't won in the first quarter, seasons aren't won in the first month. And they pace themselves very well. They're a very experienced team.”
The Lakers became the fifth team to win three straight titles, and three of them have been coached by Jackson. He guided the Chicago Bulls to six titles in eight years in the 1990s before arriving in Los Angeles and putting his motivational skills to work on an underachieving team.
“He knows if he blasts me in the paper, I won't respond but, I will go out and try to dominate the next game,” O'Neal said. “He's been doing that the last couple years. Every now and then I say something back and people think we have a problem. We don't have a problem. It's total respect. I realize if it wasn't for Phil, I wouldn't have any championships.”
“One of the media guys told me it was 11 years ago to the date that the Chicago Bulls won the first championship in L.A. And it seems like more than that,” said Jackson, who never has lost in the Finals. “I'm looking forward to the challenge of trying to get back here and win a 10th.”
This one had to be especially sweet for Jackson, who never had swept an opponent in the Finals. He also tied the legendary Red Auerbach with his ninth title and overtook Pat Riley as the all-time playoff wins leader with 156.
“It looks like I'm going to have to get my own cigar out of my briefcase in the locker room and light it up,” Jackson said. “I didn't get one FedExed by Red today.”
It was the 14th championship for the Lakers and their ninth since moving from Minneapolis in 1960. It also marked the first time they had swept the Finals, something Lakers legends George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson failed to accomplish..
It was the seventh sweep in Finals history and the first since 1995, when O'Neal was on the wrong end of Houston's demolition of Orlando. He had been pained by that loss for a long time and put the hurt on the Nets.
After a magical season that included a franchise-record 52 wins, their first Atlantic Division title and an improbable trip to the Finals, the Nets were bludgeoned by O'Neal and friends. New Jersey held a lead at the end of a quarter only once in the series.
“Obviously, I'm hurt,” said Scott, a former Laker who now has been swept as a player and a coach. “I wanted this season to continue. I'm disappointed that we didn't take it further. But I'm also very, very proud of my guys.”
“We just poured the foundation of us trying to build a home,” Kidd said. “They've already built their mansion, and they added a couple guest houses.”
Including a broom for sweeping up.