Wednesday, June 12
Updated: June 17, 7:46 PM ET
Shaq, Kobe, Phil make Lakers perennial favorites
By Jerry Bembry
ESPN The Magazine
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On one part of the podium stood Shaquille O'Neal, palming the Larry O'Brien championship trophy with his massive right hand. Standing nearby was Kobe Bryant, holding out three fingers while sporting a Lakers championship hat, tilted to the side.
If you're a Lakers fan, once again savor the moment. If you're a Laker hater, get used to it. With Wednesday's 113-107 win over the Nets, the Lakers earned a sweep of the NBA Finals and a three-peat -- and all indications are that the streak will continue.
At 30 and the peak of his career, O'Neal is now just the third player to win three NBA Finals MVP awards -- and just the second player to do it three straight years, joining Michael Jordan (who did it twice).
At 23 and still maturing as a player, Bryant is the youngest player to win three NBA championships.
Add Phil Jackson and his nine NBA coaching championships (tying Red Auerbach for most coaching titles), and you officially have a dynasty that's capable of running the table for as long as the three key components stay together.
"They're right up there," said Nets coach Byron Scott, when asked where this Lakers' team compared with others in the past of the storied franchise. "They have two of the greatest players in the game today, and they have a great, great coach in Phil Jackson. This is a great basketball team."
The Lakers got another great performance from Shaq, who scored 34 points -- giving him a series average of 36.3 points per game. O'Neal set four Finals records:
O'Neal shot 59.5 percent against the Nets in the Finals, keeping him at the top of the list as the all-time Finals leader in field-goal percentage (59.5 percent)
"I'm glad he wasn't (today's) Shaq when I was in Houston, because I'd only have four (rings)," said Robert Horry, who earned his fifth ring -- three with the Lakers and two with Houston -- with Wednesday's win. We have the most dominant player. Nobody can stop Shaq."
Bryant, who wore Michael Jordan's Bulls jersey to the arena for Game 4, had 25 points in the clincher -- hitting two of his three 3-pointers. Once determined to prove himself as the best all-around player in the league, Bryant's maturity is evident by his playing role of a sidekick to O'Neal in the Finals.
"Over the past year, Kobe's been great for us," said Lakers forward Rick Fox. "Once we got both of those guys on the same page, that's when we started to turn everything around."
And for all anyone wants to criticize Jackson for taking over a Lakers team that was already assembled, he is primarily responsible for the team's turnaround. The Lakers had been swept out of the playoffs for two straight seasons when he took over in 1999. Now they've won three straight titles.
"Phil Jackson brought out the best of us," O'Neal said. "He gave us a plan when we first met him, and he promised us if we stuck to the plan that everything would work out.
"He's someone I needed in my life," O'Neal added. "I was sort of a great player that didn't have any championships. Ever since I met Phil, now I have three."
And the third came during the seventh four-game sweep in NBA Finals history, and the first since Houston beat Orlando in 1995.
How many more are possible? In a series that was essentially over from Game 1 (and anti-climatic compared to the Sacramento series in the conference finals), Bryant said he has already had discussions with his teammates about repeating next season.
"I know what Shaq is going to do with his toe this summer," Bryant said. "But I talked to all the guys and got everybody on the same page as far as working out.
"(Other teams) are plotting. They're waiting. And we're not going to let our guards down," he added. "They're going to try to take what we have.
"And we're going to be waiting for them."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at Jerry.Bembry@espnpub.com.