Before there was a Lakers dynasty, there was a crucial moment in the final minute of Game 7 of LA’s 2000 Western Conference Finals series against the Portland Trail Blazers. And before THAT, there was … so much important background and context.
Its fair to say these teams knew each other well. After Kobe and Shaq joined forces in 1996, they proceeded to eliminate the blazers in 97 and 98 and set the foundations for the dynasty to come. So what changed between these 2 teams, both of whom got smoked by the Spurs in 99 playoffs to suddenly become the best of the west in 2000.
Apart from the addition of some veteran scoring on both teams, and the Trailblazer’s trading for a reliable second-scorer in Steve Smith, the most important changes for both teams rippled from the same splash. After the Chicago Bulls broke up in 1998, coach Phil Jackson took a 1 year hiatus and came back as the head-coach for the Lakers and Scottie Pippen who got traded to Houston, forced his way to The Blazers. Jackson was perhaps the biggest piece of them all, as he transformed LA into an elite defensive team and implemented his triangle offence to great effect.
The series as a whole was tightly contested. Both teams traded convincing victories in the first 2 games of the series. The lakers won game 1, 109-94 behind a mammoth 41 points from Shaq and the 3-headed monster of Wallace, Smith and Pippen responded emphatically blowing out the Lakers 106-77 in game 2. Game 3 was the closest one of the series, with home-court advantage on the line Pippen overpowered Kobe in the final minute to tie the game, and seconds later had the chance to put the Blazers in the lead but a costly turnover lead to the eventual game-winner for LA from the Former Bulls point-guard Ron Harper. 2-1 Lakers. Harper and the Lakers Bench also came up big in game 4 to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead.
With their backs against the walls, Pippen broke the emergency inspiration glass and showed his teammates the Championship Rings. The Blazers Rallied in game-5 behind Pippen, who was their most reliable scorer and was a beast on defence with 6 steals. Lead by Pippen the Blazers swarmed Shaq in the paint and forced multiple turnovers, to cap off a great team defensive effort.
It almost seemed like it was personal with Pippen. Well…. that’s because it was, coming into Game-5 Phil Jackson complained about a hard foul Pippen had been fined for and told his old star to his face that he should have been ejected for it, and in typical Chicago Bulls fashion Pippen took it to heart. The Blazers eventually tied up the series 3-3 in Portland after another great defensive performance in Game-6 and forced a game 7 in LA.
This game was dubbed by many as the official christening of the New Staples Center if the Lakers won, and maybe a sign of things to come if they didn’t. The game was hotly contested in the first half but the blazers really took over halfway through the 3rd quarter, powered by a personal 7-0 run by Steve Smith followed by a couple of made shots by Rasheed Wallace and near the end of the quarter Pippen drilled a step-back 3 to put the Blazers up 16. The Staples Center fell silent.
But the 4th quarter was a completely different story all together. The Lakers went on a 17-2 run to start the 4th, partly aided by their perimeter defence but mostly by the fact that the Blazers went ice cold from the field, and missed 13 of 14 shots during the Lakers rally. It was former Blazer Brian Shaw who tied the game at 75-75 with 4 minutes remaining. Followed by a couple of missed game tying free-throws late in the 4th by Rasheed Wallace, Kobe proceeded to cook Pippen and built a 4 point Laker lead with 1:09 remaining.
As the game approached its final moments there is some important context to know, the refereeing throughout the series was very choppy. Lakers game 1 victory got a big boost when Rasheed Wallace was ejected for allegedly staring at the ref for too long, game 4 included the above mentioned Pippen hard foul on John Salley and not to mention the rampant hack-a-shaq tactics employed by the blazers all throughout the series. Game 7 was no different, Blazers starting centre Arvydas Sabonis picked up 2 early questionable fouls, and ended up fouling out near the end of the game. Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy had complained all series about how Shaq was officiated, and in this game in particular it came to haunt the Blazers as Lakers shot 37 free-throws as compared to Portlands meagre 16.
Now with 43 seconds remaining Kobe Bryant marched down the court, aiming to put the Lakers up 6. He iso-ed on to Scottie Pippen as Shaq rolled to the rim unfazed by Bryan Grant, a dude who was 4 inches and around 60 pounds smaller than him. Kobe blew past Pippen and lobbed the ball to Shaq who dunked it emphatically, as the Staples crowd erupted to create one of the most iconic moments in Lakers History.