EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey, AP
The Los Angeles Lakers clinched their third consecutive NBA championship Wednesday, beating the New Jersey Nets 113-107 to complete a four-game sweep and join Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls as the only teams since the 1960s to win three consecutive titles.
Shaquille O’Neal had another dominant night with 34 points and 10 rebounds and Kobe Bryant went back to a supporting role with 25 points.
The rest of the Lakers also came through to end the best NBA season for a Nets team that defied all expectations — except against Los Angeles.
It was the Lakers’ 14th title, five while the team was in Minneapolis — including a three-peat — and nine in Los Angeles. This, however, was the first time the Lakers beat an opponent in four straight games in the finals.
“These dogs went to work, and they worked real hard this season,” coach Phil Jackson said.
After the final buzzer, the Lakers were subdued in their celebration. They’ve gotten used to this drill, and the only people in purple whooping it up were several hundred Los Angeles fans in the stands.
Bryant walked over and hugged Nets coach Bryon Scott, and moments later raised three fingers, smiling broadly.
O’Neal, who won his third consecutive finals Most Valuable Player award, sought out Nets guard Jason Kidd and then walked over to embrace his grandfather, who toweled the sweat off O’Neal’s face.
Jackson also went over to Scott, smiled and shook his hand at midcourt.
Jackson tied Red Auerbach for most titles as a head coach (nine) and passed Pat Riley for the most career postseason victories (156). Jackson also extended his own record by winning his 24th straight playoff series, including three seasons with the Chicago Bulls.
“I dedicated this championship to Red Holtzman, my mentor,” Jackson said, referring to his old coach with the New York Knicks.
The Nets all but conceded defeat with 44 seconds left, subbing Kidd and Kenyon Martin despite trailing by only six points. Bryant made two free throws while the two Nets got a rousing ovation, and 14-year veteran Mitch Richmond hit the final shot of the game — and his only one of the series.
The Nets played gallantly, trying to salvage some respect in a series that turned out to be a mismatch. But the Lakers had a little too much of everything — 11 3-pointers, big nights from their two superstars and double-figure contributions from Derek Fisher, Devean George and Robert Horry.
“It’s going to be a painful summer, but you learn from your pain,” Scott said. “It’s going to hurt for a while, but the only way to do something about it is to get better as a player and a erson.”
O’Neal, who considers nearby Newark his hometown, scored 36, 40 and 35 points in the first three games, finishing the series by going 12-for-20 from the field with four assists and two blocks.
As he received his MVP trophy, he thanked his teammates for “looking for me and having the confidence in me to give me the ball.”
“I told them if we made the finals I wasn’t going to let them down,” O’Neal said.
Bryant added eight assists and six rebounds as the Lakers finished off an almost perfect series.
This was the fifth time in NBA history that a team has won three straight titles. It’s become almost common since Jackson became a coach, first with the Bulls and then with the Lakers.
The Michael Jordan-led Bulls won three straight titles twice, 1991-93 and 1996-98. Before that, a team hadn’t won three championships in a row since the Boston Celtics (1959-66).
The Nets abandoned the full-court pressure they had used without much success in the first three games and went to a 2-3 zone whenever O’Neal was in the game. But the Lakers kept moving the ball and finding the open man, and the Nets were unable to come up with the clutch shots they needed to make it just a little closer down the stretch.
The Lakers never looked nervous throughout the game, displaying the cool confidence that has become their trademark over the past three seasons.
“Even thinking of anything past that final buzzer is ridiculous for us,” Jackson said. “Momentum shifts from quarter to quarter and timeout to timeout. But it also shifts from game to game. If (the Nets) gain momentum, we can have a series on our hands if we’re not careful.”
Martin had the highest-scoring quarter of anyone in the series, getting 17 in the first 12 minutes on an assortment of dunks and midrange jumpers. A bank shot high off the glass gave the Nets a 34-23 lead with less than a minute left in the first quarter.
Scott chose to rest Martin and Kidd at the same time to start the second quarter, and by the time both returned the Lakers had tied the game, 41-41.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by George and Horry gave Los Angeles a 55-49 lead, and a 3 by Fisher made it 58-52 before New Jersey closed the half with a 5-0 run to trail by one at the break.
Fox had eight points in the first six minutes of the third quarter, and the Lakers increased their lead to eight late in the period. If it seemed as if the Nets were all set to fade away, they had different ideas.
New Jersey closed the quarter with a 4-0 run, then got a 3- ointer from Kidd, a three-point play from Lucious Harris and a foul shot from Martin to go ahead 87-84 with 10:05 remaining.
The game stayed tight for the next several minutes, Martin scoring nine straight points for New Jersey while the Lakers got 3-pointers from Bryant and George.
Fisher hit a corner jumper with 501 remaining and O’Neal — fouled while the ball was in the air — made a foul shot to complete an unorthodox three-point play. Bryant drew a charging foul on Keith Van Horn, hit a runner in the lane, rebounded a miss by Martin and forced Kidd to alter his shot and miss a layup.
O’Neal went to the line with 4:05 remaining and made both, increasing the lead to 102-93, while Bryant answered a basket by Martin with a driving layup to restore the nine-point lead.
New Jersey got within five on a dunk by Martin with 208 left, but Fisher made a corner jumper and O’Neal — after missing his two previous shots badly — hit a turnaround from the lane with 104 remaining for a 108-99 lead.