Posted Dec 29 2009 10:12AM
Their demolition derby of an act careened through the early part of the decade, making them the most unique team of the 2000s, if not the best. The Lakers didn't merely win championships, but busted teams apart before turning the sledgehammer on themselves in a fitting final act of destruction.
Most teams used box scores to track stats. A Lakers playoff series required damage reports.
They were known, at the time, as a heavy-stepping, arrogant bunch, from the belittling players to the belittling coach who together mocked opponents as they destroyed them. But it takes the perspective of time to realize exactly how wide a swath the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant-Phil Jackson Lake Show cut.
We now know there was nothing like it in the 2000s. Winning three consecutive titles (2000, '01, '02) came with the oddity of the conference finals being more of a showdown than the championship series. Portland and then Sacramento pushed L.A. out on the ledge in a way Indiana, Philadelphia and New Jersey could not. A lot of that was the West-East imbalance of the time, but it was also the distinctive style of those Lakers -- gritty and tough and not the Showtime Hollywood cliché that follows them to this day.
And just look at what happened to the three biggest threats to the Lakers' threepeat.
The Trail Blazers: Ka.
The Kings: Boom.
Not to mention the Lakers' other huge opponent of the decade: themselves. Poof.
In the 2000 West finals, the Pacific Division champion Lakers (67-15) met the second-place Trail Blazers (59-23). The teams split the first two games, then L.A. won the next two for a convincing 3-1 advantage. Portland won the next two to force a seventh game.
The Blazers had a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter at Staples Center and were on the verge of advancing to the Finals for the first time since 1992. Then, they missed 13 consecutive shots and were outscored 31-11 over the last 11 minutes in an avalanche of a Lakers comeback that resulted in an 89-84 victory for the hosts.
The Lakers went on to beat the Pacers for the title. The Trail Blazers went off a cliff.
They won 50, 49 and 50 games the next three seasons and were eliminated in the first round each year -- the first two in sweeps by the Lakers. That Portland group, the infamous Jail Blazers, was permanently broken.
The Lakers' next victim was Sacramento, starting in 2002. West finals again, an epic, the Pacific champions Kings (61-21) against the second-place Lakers (58-24). The Kings moved to a 2-1 lead and were about to make it 3-1 when Robert Horry reached bare-handed into the chest of an entire city and yanked. It was 2-2, then 3-2 Sacramento, then 3-3 with every possible emotion and controversy flying.
Game 7 went to overtime with Arco Arena swaying in a back-and-forth fury. The Kings couldn't hit free throws, were 2-for-20 from behind the arc and in the final 90 seconds missed three shots and committed two turnovers. L.A. won 112-106 and became the first team in 20 years to win a seventh game of a conference final on the road.
The Lakers went on to beat the Nets for a third consecutive title. The Kings pancaked.
They started five consecutive seasons of decreasing win totals, they had five coaches in five seasons (counting Kenny Natt's 58 games as the 2008-09 interim) and the great homecourt advantage disappeared. That group was permanently broken.
It would be years before Portland was heard from again and not until the last couple seasons that the Trail Blazers had sustained forward movement. Sacramento hasn't come close to recovering, finishing with the worst record in the league in 2008-09, before signs of encouraging progress in the opening months of this season.
The Lakers themselves held together until mid-2004, when the Finals loss to team-first Detroit became the last chapter of a soap opera that, on talent alone, could have continued for years. But O'Neal was traded. Jackson retired. They didn't again win as many as 50 games until 2007-08.
Even though it returned in a big way in revised form, with Bryant the unquestioned star of stars and Jackson back as coach, nothing could match the destructive force of the previous Lakers, leaving banners and rubble in their wake. They were great theater. They were unique among all the NBA teams of the 2000s.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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