Most of the old school NBA fans will remember one of the most notorious playoff games as it was game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, when the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers staved off elimination by defeating the Sacramento Kings.
Many die-hard NBA fans swear by the theory that this series was rigged by the NBA for one reason and one reason only. Down 3-2 in the series, the Lakers beat Webber’s Kings at the Staples Center in part thanks to 40 free throw attempts, 27 of them in the fourth quarter. Lakers were averaging 25 free throws per game over the first five games of the series.
The allegations are some of the strongest ever made against the NBA. Disgraced ref Tim Donaghy, who did not officiate that game, later claimed it was fixed. “Sacramento had the best team in the league,” Tim Donaghy wrote in an email interview about the series. “But the referees/league didn’t allow the better team to win.”
The 2002 Kings-Lakers series has been considered controversial for years. Writing for ESPN at the time, even Bill Simmons called it “from an officiating standpoint, the most one-sided game of the past decade.”
Chris Webber would later say he didn’t think the NBA was “out to get” him or his team, implying the impropriety came on the part of the officials. The play generally considered the most egregious came when Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the face and no foul was called denying the Kings an opportunity to try for a tying basket. Bibby grabbed Bryant at the same time, perhaps just before Bryant’s elbow hit. Bryant’s contact was much more flagrant, but it might have been the second foul. Also in that game, Kings centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouled out, and Kings coach Rick Adelman was highly critical of the officiating afterward.
We remember that series as being legendary not just because of some missed calls. Beyond the controversy discussion, this was one of the most memorable playoff series in the past 20 years. The seven games included Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in all their three-peat glory, a Kings team that played a superbly fun style, Robert Horry living up to his nickname “Big Shot Bob,” an overtime Game 7, and just about anything else a single NBA playoff series can offer.
Those Kings were a damn good team. People will often forget teams like the Kings years later because they never won a title, because they never reached the Finals, but that team was stacked and cohesive. They were a couple of plays away from reaching the Finals. “I guess our time has to come at another time,” Adelman said after the series was over.
The Lakers went on to the NBA Finals, where they swept the New Jersey Nets and won their 3rd straight NBA title.