It all seems like a distant memory now, but once upon a time, there were questions about whether or not Shaquille O’Neal would ever win a championship, and if his pairing with Kobe Bryant could work. The Lakers were unceremoniously bounced in the Western Conference Playoffs in 1997, 1998, & 1999, including consecutive sweeps by the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.
As the Lakers took their lumps, Bryant was developing into the second superstar that Shaq needed. Kobe’s talent was always obvious, but the Lakers had championship aspirations and an All-Star at his eventual position (Eddie Jones), so he was brought along slowly. He didn’t become a full-time starter until his third season, the lockout-shortened campaign of 1999. Del Harris was ousted soon after and replaced by Phil Jackson, a rare high-priced coaching selection by Dr. Jerry Buss.
With Jackson in the fold, Kobe primed for superstardom, and the debut of their new digs at Staples Center, there was a sentiment in Lakerland that the 1999-2000 season was going to be the year that everything came together. And for 82 regular season games and 14 more in the playoffs, it did. The Lakers won 67 games and aside from a challenge by the upstart Sacramento Kings in the first round, cruised comfortably through the postseason to a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Then things got uncomfortable.
The Lakers started AC Green — who also started at power forward for their last title team in 1988 — and Ron Harper, who was fluent in the Triangle Offense and one of Jackson’s favorites. Harper was 36 and Green was 37, and for all of their wheel-greasing, veteran savvy, they were not scoring threats. At all. Portland used that to their advantage to tie the series by sitting in Shaq’s lap and preventing post-entry passes, while daring Harper and Green to shoot. If Shaq did get a catch, he was immediately doubled, while Scottie Pippen roamed off of Harper.
Shaq scored just 17 points on 7-17 shooting in Game 6 and had only 9 points heading into the 4th quarter of Game 7, after averaging 29.7 points during the regular season. It looked like the Lakers were going to underperform expectations and fall short of the NBA Finals once again.
Then, perhaps the greatest comeback in Lakers’ history happened. Let’s take a closer look at the moment that propelled Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to their first NBA championship.
For a little LFR Classic, @LakerFilmRoom took a look back at the Lakers’ game seven comeback against the Blazers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, and why it was choke job from Portland rather than being rigged.https://t.co/VN2JjMS8cs pic.twitter.com/qO6Eh0BqV8— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) August 14, 2018
Allow me to get something off of my chest that I’ve wanted to illustrate for the last 18 years.
Conspiracy-minded Trail Blazers fans will argue that this game was rigged. That David Stern and his nefarious minions didn’t want a TV ratings-adverse matchup of Portland vs. Indiana in the NBA Finals. That he dispatched Dick Bavetta to prevent it, and that the 37-16 free throw discrepancy is the evidence, culminating in a no-call on a Steve Smith drive with 30 seconds left that was tantamount to attempted murder by Shaquille O’Neal.
What a bunch of nonsense. Watch this.
A few things:
- There’s one arguably bad foul call on Portland, which is the same type of foul that Robert Horry was called for when battling Rasheed Wallace for post position.
- You can’t honestly argue about the injustices of a free throw discrepancy when your team was trying to foul the opponent for 10 of the attempts. And several of the other fouls were intentional, to prevent Shaq or Kobe from getting a dunk or layup.
- There was a goaltend and an off-ball foul called on Shaq in the last two minutes of the game that gave Portland 2 points and 2 free throws, which Wallace promptly missed. The foul was definitely the correct call, and the goaltend probably was too, but they were close enough to where if there was some edict from the league to avoid a Pacers vs. Blazers Finals, the refs could have credibly swallowed their whistles.
- The worst call of the quarter was Kobe being called for a foul after Steve Smith tripped over himself, which would have otherwise been a turnover.
- Steve Smith initiates the contact on his infamous drive against Shaq and throws his off-arm. It’s not Shaq’s fault that he was so big that Smith bounced off of him and dramatically sprawled across the floor, nor that he was unaffected by Smith’s off-arm. The best case for a foul call is that Shaq turns his body a bit rather than taking the contact squarely, but no way in hell are you getting that call in the last 30 seconds of a Game 7.
- Lastly...they were down 4!!! Even if they get that call, what...that swings the game back in their direction after they’d been reeling the entire quarter? C’mon.
The Blazers lost because they missed 13 consecutive shots in the 4th quarter of the biggest game of their lives. Both the Blazers and their fans have constructed a silly “rigged” narrative to avoid addressing the reality of one of the biggest choke jobs in NBA history.
I feel a lot better now.