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The NBA’s 2001-02 season saw a familiar face return (but land in a new place), a team switch towns and an also-ran emerge as a surprise contender. But much like the past two seasons, this season was about the Lakers hitting their stride come playoff time.
Michael Jordan returned to the NBA on Sept. 25, 2001, signing as a free agent with the Washington Wizards. Jordan, who was serving in a front-office capacity with the team and had an ownership stake, too, signed a two-year deal with the Wizards. He had to sell his piece of the team and decided to pledge his first year salary to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Jordan’s return helped the Wizards increase their win total from 19 to 37, but it wasn’t enough for Washington to make the playoffs.
In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies made their debut after relocating from Vancouver. The new location didn’t help the on-court product, though, as the Grizz posted a second straight 23-59 season. The Charlotte Hornets played their final season in North Carolina as they would relocate to New Orleans the following season.
Perhaps the most shocking turn of the season happened in the East, where perennial doormat New Jersey stunned the league with a 52-30 season. Powered by point guard Jason Kidd and an exciting mix of young talent, the Nets wrapped up the East’s No. 1 seed and toppled the Pacers, Hornets and Celtics in succession to reach their first NBA Finals.
In the West, the Lakers got out to a 16-1 start, but injuries to Derek Fisher and Shaquille O’Neal kept them from truly dominating. L.A. finished third in the West, but by playoff time had everyone healthy and rolled into the West finals against Sacramento. It was there that the Kings and Lakers had one of the epic playoff series in NBA history as the Lakers ousted the Kings in overtime of Game 7.
Once in The Finals and free from the Kings, the Lakers romped the Nets. In a series sweep, O’Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds to collect a third straight Finals MVP trophy, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to have accomplished that feat. Phil Jackson earned his ninth NBA championship as a coach and surpassed Pat Riley for most career playoff wins.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Philadelphia (3-2)
Charlotte defeated Orlando (3-1)
Detroit defeated Toronto (3-2)
New Jersey defeated Indiana (3-2)
Western Conference first round
Dallas defeated Minnesota (3-0)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Portland (3-0)
Sacramento defeated Utah (3-1)
San Antonio defeated Seattle (3-2)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Detroit (4-1)
New Jersey defeated Charlotte (4-1)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated San Antonio (4-1)
Sacramento defeated Dallas (4-1)
Eastern Conference finals
New Jersey defeated Boston (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Sacramento (4-3)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated New Jersey (4-0)
Points — Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers (31.4)
Assists — Andre Miller, Cleveland Cavaliers (10.9)
Rebounds — Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons (13.0)
Steals — Allen Iverson, Philadelphia (2.8)
Blocks — Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons (3.5)
FG% — Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers (57.9)
FT% — Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers (91.1)
3PT% — Steve Smith, San Antonio Spurs (47.1)
Most Valuable Player — Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Rookie of the Year — Pau Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Defensive Player of the Year — Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons
Most Improved Player — Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers
Sixth Man of the Year — Corliss Williamson, Detroit Pistons
Coach of the Year — Rick Carlisle, Detroit Pistons
All-Star Game MVP — Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Finals MVP — Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers