J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site, Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been dishing out tremendous historical pieces and today graces FB&G with a look at a classic game that we all remember well. You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.
If there is one thing that both the NBA and its fans love, it has to be Game 7’s. The idea of winner take all usually gets an enormous amount of ratings and also helps create or enhance legacies. The best example of this of this is none other than Bill Russell. The Celtic legend won 11 NBA titles and was undefeated in such games during his career. Hence, he is viewed as the greatest winner in professional team sports.
The irony of it all though is that the most memorable Game 7’s the NBA has been able to offer in recent years have all involved the Los Angeles Lakers.
Granted, there have been some fairly impressive Game 7’s in the past few years that did not involve the Lakers:
- Orlando winning in Boston in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
- Boston defeating Cleveland in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
- Dallas winning in San Antonio in the 2006 Western Conference Semi-Finals.
- San Antonio defeating Detroit in the 2005 NBA Finals (probably the least remembered one by the way, hell you might not know it even happened).
- Detroit winning in Miami in the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals.
- Minnesota defeating Sacramento in the 2004 Western Conference Semi-Finals.
- Philadelphia defeating Milwaukee in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.
- Philadelphia defeating Toronto in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
Some of those games are NBA Hardwood Classics. And yet, none of them come close to matching the purple and gold’s recent history:
- 2000 Western Conference Finals: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers.
- 2002 Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Lakers at Sacramento Kings.
- 2010 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers.
Considering just how great these games were, perhaps a stroll through memory lane might not be a bad thing.
My favorite one out of the three is easily the one in Sacramento. This was the ultimate test of team versus superstars.
From top to bottom, the Sacramento Kings had the best team in the NBA. They had a terrific young point guard in Mike Bibby who shot the lights out, a defensive stopper in Doug Christie who could occasionally play point guard, a talented scorer in Peja Stojakovic, arguably the best power forward in the game in Chris Webber and an accomplished center in Vlade Divac.
The starting five gave teams fits, but they also had a superb combo guard in Bobby Jackson coming off the bench as well as another scorer/shooter in Hedo Turkoglu to spell both the shooting guard and small forward spots. Also, Scott Pollard might not have been a household name, but he was a solid back up center that hustled, rebounded and ran the floor.
The Lakers on the other hand were viewed as Shaq and Kobe. Oh and the rest of the team as well.
Several fans felt that Sacramento was ready. It was time for a new shade of purple to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. But the series, and more importantly its final game captured everything you needed to know about winning in the NBA: talent matters, but do does heart and mental toughness.
As the game starts, one thing is obvious from the jump: Kings players will probably win all the hustle stats because of their younger legs, but also because of the frantic crowd. The fans in attendance at Arco Arena should make a huge difference in this one, energizing the home team with their cheers.
Despite all of those facts, the Lakers play with poise early in the game and do not allow the crowd noise to affect them. With Kings players sagging down in the lane to take away passing angles to the post and also to be ready to double and triple team Shaquille O’Neal (35 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks by game’s end) whenever he catches the ball, the Los Angeles role players have to early on manufacture shots for themselves. The strategy means that Derek Fisher (four-for-11 from the field by end of game), Kobe Bryant (10-for-26 from the field at conclusion of game), Rick Fox (five-for-12 from the field) and Robert Horry (six-for-17 from the field) would have to find a way to score all by themselves.
The Lakers offense naturally struggles a bit but owns a 22-21 lead after the first quarter.
By the second quarter, Sacramento’s early game jitters are gone. Much like during the entire regular season and postseason run, the Kings look like the best passing team in basketball. Webber (stat line for the game: 20 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and two steals) is feeding cutters from the high post, driving the lane and dropping it off to Divac’s for dunks while Christie is finding open shooters for long-range shots.
Because the Kings are literally sitting in Shaquille O’Neal’s lap, they are allowing some fairly wide driving lanes to his teammates. Thus, when they drive to the basket, they do not get much resistance; and even when they miss, O’Neal cleans up the offensive glass.
At halftime the Kings are up 54-52. Although the Kings have the lead, they seem overly emotional; screaming and chest pumping after every good play. Normally this is a good thing, but they look like a team that could be emotionally fragile if things were to go wrong while the Lakers on the other hand look like they are all business.
The third quarter is played at the rhythm of the first quarter; as the Lakers remain in striking distance throughout with their role players asserting themselves offensively. They are not having their best games by any stretch of the imagination but their willingness to take shots will come back to save them later on.
The Kings meanwhile are playing well and spreading the wealth as usual but one aspect seems puzzling: Chris Webber has been single covered throughout the game by Robert Horry, Samaki Walker and Slava Medvedenko and yet he refuses to assert himself offensively. Score after three: Kings lead 74-73.
Because the Lakers role players have been forced to make plays throughout the game, they have the confidence to do it in the fourth quarter. Fox and Fisher both get driving lay ups (yes, lay ups) against the Kings defense, while Kobe (stat line: 30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, two steals) gets himself to the line and sets up his teammates with his drives.
As the fourth quarter progresses, the Kings biggest weakness as well as the Lakers biggest strength starts to show: mental toughness.
The Kings get a multitude of open shots (seriously, it’s almost embarrassing) and continue to keep clanking them off the rim. Whenever they get fouled, they step to the line and more often than not hit one of their two free throws. The purple and gold on the other hand are getting the shots that they want and are making them.
Much to the delight of Kings fans though, Mike Bibby (29 points on 11-for-25 field goal shooting) has decided to play like Sam Cassell on this fateful day. The only thing missing is the onions dance. Bibby tortures the Lakers, making big shot, after big shot, after big shot. He should seriously consider filing a lawsuit against Chauncey Billups in the near future.
Indeed, the former Arizona Wildcat makes a jumper to put the Kings up 94-93 with 1:43 left and has all of the swagger he did not have in the 2011 NBA Finals as he screams after making the shot and looks like he belongs. But then Lakers come right back, and with Divac sagging in the lane (Shaq is posting up Webber on the left block and Kobe is posting up Christie on the right block), Horry catches the ball at the extended top of the key, fires away and makes an open 3-pointer to put the Lakers up 96-94 (what was Divac thinking? Hadn’t he seen all the montages of Big Shot Rob clutch shots? Did he magically erase Horry’s game winning shot in Game 4 against them from his memory? We will never know).
Bibby will later tie the game up at the free throw line and take us to overtime.
Phil Jackson is reputed for having coached Michael Jordan and also because of his fondness for Zen. But more importantly, the man knows how to coach basketball. Throughout the game, he used his timeouts well and ran plays out of them to take advantage of the Kings defense. But more importantly, he empowered his team to make decisions on the court.
The biggest knock on Shaquille O’Neal has been his inability to make free throws during his career and thus going to him late in ball games was almost impossible because of the fear that they would foul him once he caught the ball. But Jackson’s coaching made such a fear irrelevant in this game. Time and time again, the Lakers kept feeding O’Neal (11-for-15 at free throw line for the game) late in the overtime and he delivered; finding open teammates, scoring on the block and even making his free throws when fouled.
The opposite spectrum of that obviously is that Adelman did a subpar job of putting the right personnel on the court. For the most part, Adelman played a visibly shell-shocked PeJa Stojakovic (three-for-12 from the field in the game) and Doug Christie (two-for-11) who both got clean looks at the basket in OT and both shot airballs.And yet, he had Hedo Turkoglu (four-for-seven from the field) and Bobby Jackson (six-for-nine from the field) sitting next to him onthe bench.
Conventional wisdom states that you ride the guys that got you that far, but Peja and Christie were too busy making an appearance on Mobb Deep’s hit track Shook Ones to help the squad late in the ball game.
Mike Bibby was sensational (scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined) but it became obvious that at some point the Lakers were going to force him to pass the ball off to someone; and when that eventually happened, those players missed. Badly.
The Lakers on the other hand willed themselves to the charity stripe where they converted their shots and held on for the win.
One of the most awkward moments came after the game when Jim Gray decided to interview both Mike Bibby and Kobe Bryant together (race to 6:40 mark of the clip). Bibby was clearly disappointed with the loss while Kobe was all smiles and singing the praises of the Kings’ point guard.
Bibby then tried to explain his emotions while Lakers players kept coming over to tell him he had a great series. It made for a funny and yet odd television moment.
That 2002 Los Angeles Lakers went on to win the NBA title because they had talent, but because they were all focused one collective goal, and banded together to reach it. But once again, it’s one thing to want it, it’s a completely different thing to stand inside the ring, take the punches and still go get it.
Usually, repeat champions are the toughest minded basketball teams. Think of Russell’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, Olajuwon’s Rockets, Duncan’s Spurs, Shaq’s Lakers and Kobe’s Lakers; teams that were never truly out of a game or a series.
Watching this Lakers team triumph on the road in Game 7 against a more talented opponent in the Western Conference Finals was arguably one of the toughest tests of will in basketball history. And the Lakers passed it with flying colors.
And people wonder why this is one of my favorite Game 7’s ever…