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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Robert Marvi

10 greatest Lakers championship teams: No. 8

Over a span of several decades, the Los Angeles Lakers became the gold standard of basketball by winning championship after championship. They did so with a formula that consisted of transcendent leaders, star players, selfless supporting contributors and a healthy team concept.

The Lakers are one of very few teams in sports that have had multiple dynasties. They had one in their embryonic years in Minneapolis, one during the Showtime era of the 1980s and yet another one in the first decade of the 21st century. As such, not every one of their championship teams can be put on a top 10 list, but we will do our best to rank the 10 greatest Lakers teams to win it all.

Coming in at eighth is the ring that turned the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant teams of the early 2000s into a bona fide dynasty.

Shooting for the moon

After winning the 2001 NBA championship, the next goal for the Lakers was obvious: win a third straight title. It was something that had rarely been done in the history of the league, or in the history of any major sports league, and it would be a Herculean feat indeed.

The Lakers had actually been the first NBA team to threepeat back in the early 1950s when George Mikan was their leading man. Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics won eight in a row in the late 1950s and 1960s and, of course, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls pulled off two separate sets of three rings in a row in the 1990s.

Pulling off such a feat isn’t just a physical challenge, but it is even more of a mental challenge, as a team must remain hungry and focused. Luckily for L.A., it had the perfect coach for such a quest in Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan and crew in the 1990s. Jackson knew how to give an aging team enough room during a long regular season and when to demand more of them and ratchet up the intensity later on.

The 2001-02 Lakers started the schedule 16-1, picking up right where they left off the previous June when they went 15-1 in the playoffs. But they ran into a new problem: complacency. After sleepwalking through the previous year only to become dominant in the postseason, they now found themselves bored with the regular season. As if to prove how bored it was, Los Angeles would lose some embarrassing games at midseason to some of the worst teams in the league.

When March arrived, fans waited for the Lakers to flip the switch, but it didn’t really happen. They lost back-to-back road games in blowout fashion to the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, which seemed like a red flag. The team did win 11 of its last 15 regular season games, but it didn’t look impressive at all in doing so.

Although the Lakers finished with a strong 58 wins, there was some anxiety going into the playoffs. They were no longer the top dogs in the NBA, or even in their home state.

California uber alles

With the Sacramento Kings winning a league-high 61 games, there was a feeling going into the playoffs that they, and not the Lakers, were the favorites to win the NBA championship. The previous summer, they had traded exciting but erratic point guard Jason Williams for the steady and dependable Mike Bibby, and Bibby seemed to be their final piece.

The Lakers swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, but they were sputtering, as O’Neal had been battling an arthritic big toe all season that was now acting up. They barely defeated Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the second round, but the Spurs battled back and won Game 2 fairly convincingly, making it look like L.A. was in for a dogfight.

Even with O’Neal ailing, Bryant went into Black Mamba mode and pulled his now-familiar clutch antics to win the next three games for the team. It was now headed for a Western Conference Finals showdown versus the Kings.

The Lakers suddenly looked like their dominant selves from 2001 when they scored a fairly lopsided Game 1 win. But Bryant came down with a severe case of food poisoning prior to the next game, which gave Sacramento just enough of an edge to win by six.

The Purple and Gold thought going home for Game 3 would restore order, but in fact, Sacramento blew them out in that contest, and when they fell behind 48-24 early in Game 4, it looked like they were going to exit the playoffs with a whimper. But they scratched and clawed back, and it was Robert Horry’s buzzer-beater that won the game and tied the series at two wins apiece.

The fun part of the series was just starting. Bibby’s last-second shot won Game 5 for the Kings, while big performances from O’Neal (41 points and 17 rebounds) and Bryant (31 points, 11 rebounds and five assists) put Game 6 in the win column for L.A. Both teams would complain about the officiating in both games, but the series was headed for a winner-take-all Game 7 in Northern California.

In a riveting, back-and-forth affair, the Lakers prevailed in overtime, 112-106. To most, that game decided the world championship that season. In the end, the Kings only had themselves to blame for losing the series, as they shot just 2-of-20 from 3-point range and 16-of-30 from the free throw line in Game 7.

The Lakers then went on to sweep the undermanned New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals to make their threepeat official. If they weren’t a true dynasty yet, they at least had laid down the foundation for one. Most figured at least two more championships were in store for the team.

But no one knew the winding journey it would have to endure to get those two additional rings.

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