MVP O'Neal finishes off Philadelphia's warriors

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on June 16, 2001.

The end to a memorable season became evident with 9 minutes, 13 seconds left.

As the 76ers' Tyrone Hill stood at the free-throw line, Aaron McKie left the game, a beaten and sullen soldier. Eric Snow, one of his team's valiant warriors, began joking with Lakers guard Brian Shaw. The rest of the 76ers looked docile and resigned.

Riding a gargantuan 29-point, 13-rebound effort from Shaquille O'Neal, along with a stellar 26-point, 12-rebound, 6-assist effort from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers rode their dynamic duo to the NBA title, beating the Sixers, 108-96, in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in front of 20,890 at the First Union Center last night. The championship was the second straight for the Lakers.

O'Neal, chagrined that Allen Iverson had captured league MVP honors, was named MVP of the Finals. He averaged 33 points and 16 rebounds in the series. He was the story.

That the Lakers finished 15-1 in the playoffs - the best winning percentage (.938) in NBA history - only spoke to their level of dominance.

The Sixers again dug themselves a hole early, then methodically attempted to climb out of it. Finally, they watched a loyal crowd applaud their effort. Unlike previous playoff rounds, the Sixers were simply overmatched by the Lakers.

Iverson finished with a game-high 37 points, but shot 14 for 32 from the field. Dikembe Mutombo finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. Hill finally delivered, recording 18 points and 13 rebounds. Matt Geiger came off the bench to provide 11 quality minutes.

But the combination of suspect shooting, too many injuries and too much O'Neal proved to be the difference.

"This season has been surreal," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who earned his his eighth world title as a coach. "When we were down, this team kept telling me we'd win 18 straight and get to 60 wins. I told them just play one game at a time and we'd see what happened. They captured the momentum late in the season, and rode it all the way through. I'm very proud. "

Jackson had much to be proud of - the Lakers entered the NBA Finals with 19 straight wins, 11 straight in the playoffs. And he was proud they won four straight after they dropped Game 1 on their home floor, the Staples Center.

It didn't hurt that the Sixers were ailing, and that they shot 37 for 90 (41.1 percent) from the field and just 4 for 15 from beyond the arc.

"I'm just so proud of my team," Sixers coach Larry Brown said afterward. "Not to take anything away from the Lakers; they're a great team.

"But people need to understand how hurt our guys were, . . . how they never gave up and kept fighting. The NBA commissioner [David Stern] came by to see me after the game to tell me how proud he was of our guys, how much character they showed. I couldn't agree with him more. "

An emotion-packed arena helped the 76ers enjoy a quick start. But the crowd could make no difference in what was taking place on the court, for the same reason it couldn't make a difference in Games 3 and 4. The Lakers were too good.

Los Angeles drilled six three-point baskets in the first half. The Lakers made 14 free throws. Their transition defense negated nearly every Sixers' fastbreak. Iverson walked into the locker room at the break favoring his right hip. Officially, he suffered what was called a "right-flank contusion. " But Iverson was on the court to start the second half.

The Sixers trailed, 52-48, at intermission. The Lakers withstood the Sixers' early burst of momentum. The end seemed near. And there seemed to be little the Sixers could do about it.

The Sixers showed no signs of surrender at the start. Two driving layups by Iverson, combined with with a layup from Hill, keyed an early 8-2 Sixers' run. One of Iverson's drives came after his patented crossover dribble.

But after arguing a foul call against him, Iverson earned a technical foul from referee Joey Crawford. Things began heading downhill from there for the Sixers.

Knowing the Sixers had picked up three fouls in the first 30 seconds of the game, the Lakers went about their business methodically. They played in-your-face defense in the first two quarters and were particularly effective denying the passing lanes.

Derek Fisher hit a three-pointer. O'Neal hit a jumper. Horace Grant slammed home a rebound. Rick Fox drilled two three-pointers. The Lakers were finding a rhythm offensively.

The Sixers led after the first quarter, 27-24. But L.A. appeared to be toying with the Sixers, and the statistics were piling up in the Lakers' favor.

In the first half, Los Angeles shot just 16 for 42 (38.1 percent) to the 76ers' 20 for 45 (44.4 percent). The Lakers made 6 of 9 three-point attempts (66.7 percent) and 14 of 18 free throws before halftime. They registered 13 assists and committed just three turnovers.

"We didn't come here to eventually play a Game 6," Fox had said.

O'Neal had 17 points at halftime. Bryant and Fox had 11 each. Iverson led the Sixers with 19 points on 7-for-17 shooting.

Regardless of what the Sixers did, the Lakers had an answer.

With champagne ready to be opened - and a parade in Los Angeles already in the works for Monday afternoon - it was easy to recognize that the Lakers sensed their moment of triumph was near.

All the Lakers had to do was hold on, which wasn't a problem at any other time in this series.

There was no reason to think it would be a problem in the second half of Game 5.