Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of game seven between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trailblazers, which is considered as the starting point of the Lakers dynasty in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The Lakers won 67 games that seasons and were a definite championship contender. Still, the Blazers gave them unexpected problems in what Shaquille O’Neal later described as their toughest playoff series during their championship runs.
The Blazers were stacked with great players that season and they were extremely well-rounded with players that could do multiple things equally well. In an interview for The Bleacher Report, Shaq talks about the importance of that series and the iconic moment between him and Kobe Bryant, which happened at the end of the game.
The Lakers were up 3-1 and started celebrating too soon, which in Shaq’s opinion now was a huge mistake because they allowed Blazers to come in the series, which they eventually did. Game 7 was played in the Staples Center and coming into the fourth quarter; the Lakers were down by 15 points, which caused a lot of frustration within the team and Shaq himself, who felt he left everybody down. The Blazers had a great game plan on slowing down Shaq which they
We were up 3-1. We got cute a lotta of times. We let our guards down. They were the toughest teams, and they were the only team that wasn’t scared of us. So for me, I was kind of nervous, but I knew that I had to come out and play well, which didn’t happen. I didn’t have one of those Shaq-like games at all.Shaquille O’Neal, via The Bleacher Report
The narrative in the NBA back then was that Shaq, even though a great player wasn’t capable of taking his teams to the next level. After signing with the Lakers in 1996, the Lakers had several seasons where they failed to make it to NBA finals, despite having a young and talented group of players. Shaq admits that he was afraid coming into the fourth quarter against the Blazers that the history will repeat itself and that if they lose, his tenure with the Lakers would be over.
Now for us, in our head, we got tired of failing. And if you don’t get this one, just be another ‘Oh, they had a good year, but, you know, they failed”. I know I would have been the scapegoat if we didn’t win that game, and I probably would have been gone right away. I was scared, scared of that if we didn’t get it done, it’ll be all over. Kobe vs Shaq feud thing gonna come up. I just let everybody down.Shaquille O’Neal, via The Bleacher Report
Shaq didn’t have a great game against the Blazers until the last quarter when he was finally able to hit some shots, and the momentum started to change. It was Kobe, who kept his team’s dream of the NBA finals alive, making one clutch shot after the other. When the Lakers finally took the lead, one of the most iconic moments happened that is still remembered to this day. Shaq initially thought Kobe wouldn’t pass him the ball, but when he did, he knew he had to get up and get it.
Shaquille O’Neal, via The Bleacher Report
Then in the fourth quarter, I got rollin a little bit. I hit one of the glass. But I kept telling Kob, hey I’m wide open at the rim and he said I gotcha. I gotcha. The last play, I wasn’t even lookin for the ball cuz cause I was like ok, Kobe gonna shoot in the fourth quarter. Get it to Kobe and just get out of the way. Grant left me, and I just threw my hand up. I almost didn’t jump cuz I didn’t think he was gonna throw it. But when he threw it up, I said oh shit, this is not a shot. So I had to get it up, and he actually threw it up way too high. If I’d jumped a second later or jumped too early, I’d have missed it. I just threw it through real quick.
In some poetic way, that connection on an alley opp was a start of a dominance rarely seen in NBA history. The dynamic duo of Kobe and Shaq went on to win three straight NBA championships and had four finals appearances in five years. For Shaq, that was the moment when he realized he had a player on his team that can finally help him win championships, which they eventually did. Shaq, still to this day, truly believes they were the most dominant one-two punch in NBA history, and rightfully so.
That was the defining moment of our dominant run. But that was the beginning of the great Laker three-peat, and that solidified us being the most enigmatic, most controversial, most dominant one-two punch ever created.Shaquille O’Neal, via The Bleacher Report