All anyone remembers now is how dominant Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were together on the Lakers, and how it all ended prematurely despite the duo winning three championships together. Before all of the glory, their championship run almost didn’t even begin.
Fourteen years ago today, the Lakers played at home against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. In Shaq’s first three seasons with the Lakers, the team failed to make it out of the Western Conference, including two sweeps in back-to-back years to San Antonio and Utah. Phil Jackson was hired in 2000 to put all the pieces together for a championship run.
In his first season as head coach of the team, the Lakers won 67 games and found themselves up 3-1 against the Blazers in the Conference Finals. After two failed attempts to close out the series, the Lakers still had a home game to wrap it up and get back to the Finals.
Except, the script didn’t play out according to plan, at least not for the first three quarters. The Blazers entered the fourth up 13 points, and it looked like another summer without a championship for Shaq. The questions about whether Shaq and Kobe could win a title together would have intensified, especially after the Lakers hired a coach with championship experience to get them over the hump in just such a situation. The team would have been at a bit of a crossroads having failed to win a title in their first four seasons with Shaq and a young Mamba.
There are so many what-ifs to consider, but all of them were set aside when the Lakers put together one of the most incredible fourth-quarter comebacks in league history. The Blazers offense went ice cold in the fourth, and the Lakers took advantage, outscoring them 31-13 in the quarter.
There is some controversy surrounding the game, which runs ancillary to the comeback narrative. Disgraced former ref Tim Donaghy mentioned as much in his much-maligned book hyped by conspiracy theorists: Blowing the Whistle. In one passage, he mentions septuagenarian ref Dick Bavetta possibly awarding the Lakers more foul shots to get them back in the game (LA shot 37 compared to Portland’s 16). Via Deadspin comes the important excerpt about the game — one which Rip City fans will always use when people mention their team’s choke job in the final quarter:
The 2002 series certainly wasn’t the first or last time Bavetta weighed in on an important game. He also worked Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Trail Blazers. The Lakers were down by 13 at the start of the fourth quarter when Bavetta went to work. The Lakers outscored Portland 31–13 in the fourth quarter and went on to win the game and the series. It certainly didn’t hurt the Lakers that they got to shoot 37 free throws compared to a paltry 16 for the Trail Blazers.
Regardless, the Lakers had to prime the pump if they were going to finish up the Blazers at home even with the free throw disparity. Up four with less than a minute left, Kobe connected with Shaq for this signature alley-oop to essentially clinch the game:
The Lakers would advance to the Finals where they beat the Indiana Pacers in six games. Kobe and Shaq would go onto win two more titles together before they went their separate ways. But 14 years ago today, they came so close to not starting their championship run at all.
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