THE FI­NAL STEP

War­riors can ac­com­plish what the 2001 Lak­ers nearly did — go un­beaten through­out the play­offs

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Ta­nia Gan­guli

OAK­LAND — The last time a team breezed its way into the NBA Fi­nals with a per­fect record in the first three rounds of the play­offs, that team’s most mem­o­rable game came next. It came in a loss that jerked the squad awake. And the most in­deli­ble im­age of that was Allen Iver­son tak­ing a dra­matic step over plucky Lak­ers guard Ty­ronn Lue, who had ha­rassed him in the fourth quar­ter and over­time.

“It wasn’t a big deal to me at the time, but if I knew it was go­ing to be a big deal across the me­dia world, I would have picked him up when he stepped over me,” Lue said on the eve of the NBA Fi­nals. He chuck­led at the mem­ory. Six­teen years later Lue coaches the Cleve­land Cava­liers, that se­ries hav­ing boosted his ca­reer. The Cava­liers are 12-1 com­ing into the Fi­nals, al­most as good as his Lak­ers team, which was 11-0. But the Cava­liers will be fac­ing a team that is 12-0 head­ing into the se­ries. On Thurs­day night, the NBA Fi­nals will be­gin and the Golden State War­riors will have an op­por­tu­nity to match or even bet­ter that Lak­ers’ ac­com­plish­ment if they be­come the first team in NBA his­tory to sweep through the play­offs.

Among those watch­ing will be play­ers who know first­hand what this is like.

“Oh, they’re gonna lose some games,” said Ho­race Grant, a vet­eran for­ward on that Lak­ers team, laugh­ing. “LeBron says they’re gonna lose some games. I would love the War­riors to lose a cou­ple games and not go 16-1. I don’t even want them to tie us.”

The 2000-01 Lak­ers didn’t even en­ter the play­offs as the top seed in the Western Con­fer­ence. They went 56-26 and were the sec­ond seed to the San An­to­nio Spurs. But late in the reg­u­lar sea­son, a switch flipped for the de­fend­ing NBA cham­pi­ons, as they won their last eight games.

They started the play­offs by beat­ing the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers in three games in a be­stof-five se­ries.

They beat the Sacra­mento Kings in four games.

Then they knocked off the Spurs, who had the best record in the reg­u­lar sea­son, in four games by an av­er­age mar­gin of 22.25 points a game.

“We wanted to be bor­ing,” said De­vean Ge­orge, a young re­serve for­ward on that team. “We wanted to win ev­ery game. We don’t care any­thing about rat­ings. We don’t care if they’re bored. If we can win four games straight, we can get some rest.”

They came into the Fi­nals feel­ing un­beat­able, and rest­ing for nine days as the Philadel­phia 76ers slugged out a seven-game se­ries against the Mil­wau­kee Bucks.

“The un­spo­ken word was about us want­ing to sweep ev­ery­body,” Robert Horry said. “We’d be the first team in his­tory to sweep ev­ery se­ries. No­body would men­tion it, no­body would say any­thing but it was some­thing ev­ery­body felt and wanted so, so bad.”

Then then they ran smack into a tiny dy­namo in Iver­son.

Iver­son scored 38 points by the end of the third quar­ter at Sta­ples Cen­ter be­fore thenLak­ers coach Phil Jack­son turned to his own tiny, quick player. Lue took on the Her­culean task.

“Just com­ing in, try­ing to change the dy­nam­ics of the game,” Lue said. “[Guard­ing] Iver­son, who was prob­a­bly one of the most feared guys in the league back when I played when he was in the league. … And ac­tu­ally I didn’t do the cov­er­ages that we were sup­posed to do. I got in trou­ble with Phil af­ter the game, but he said, what­ever you were do­ing, con­tinue to do it.”

It worked for a while, but in over­time Iver­son kept the game just out of reach. Then he hit the jumper that lives in in­famy on Lue’s ca­reer high­light reel af­ter which he stepped over Lue. Iver­son fin­ished with 48 points and the 76ers won by six.

“That was kind of a, ‘These guys ain’t noth­ing,’ ” Ge­orge said.

“You could never talk trash to a team that had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on it,” Horry said. “You poked the bear. That was his way of say­ing y’all can’t han­dle me I’m the MVP, the best player in the league yada yada yada. … He knew he had no chance to beat us. ”

Jack­son didn’t panic af­ter one over­time loss. He was jovial at half­time. Af­ter the game, he rel­ished the op­por­tu­nity to have a cap­tive au­di­ence in meet­ings the next day. Ad­dress­ing mis­takes is eas­ier to teach to a team that isn’t on a 19-game win­ning streak.

“Af­ter we got slapped in the face that first game, we woke up as a team,” Grant said.

They went to Philadel­phia tied 1-1 and fac­ing a hos­tile fan base. Lue and Ge­orge went out for a cheeses­teak and some shop­ping be­fore a game with a friend who lived in Philadel­phia. When they got back to their car, some­one had cov­ered it in toi­let pa­per and spray-painted “traitor.”

Sev­eral play­ers re­mem­ber fights in the stands. Horry hit a game-clinch­ing shot in Game 3 and grew dis­tracted in the postgame in­ter­view be­cause he no­ticed a fight break­ing out near his fa­ther.

When they won the se­ries in Game 5 in Philadel­phia, se­cu­rity shuf­fled the Lak­ers away quickly to cel­e­brate be­hind closed doors. They fin­ished the play­offs at 15-1, their .938 win­ning per­cent­age the best in league his­tory.

That game, that se­ries and the im­pact, was big for Lue. He was head­ing into free agency and now could boast his suc­cess against Iver­son on his re­sume.

“I looked up to him as far as who he was as a player, his size, be­ing 6 foot, his heart and tenac­ity,” Lue said. “So as a young player, I looked up to him, and hav­ing a chance and an op­por­tu­nity to play against him in the NBA Fi­nals and do­ing a de­cent job de­fen­sively, it re­ally helped my ca­reer out.”

The game also re­mained burned in the mem­o­ries of Lak­ers fans.

One was an 11-year-old named Klay Thomp­son, who watched it hap­pen, hor­ri­fied.

“As a fan you’re so ex­treme,” said Thomp­son, now the War­riors’ start­ing shoot­ing guard. “You’re ei­ther so happy or you’re so down you think the world is over. That was a great team. Hope­fully we can have the type of re­sult that they did.”

If the un­spo­ken yearn­ing Horry re­mem­bers with the Lak­ers — the de­sire to make his­tory — ex­ists among the War­riors, Thomp­son wouldn’t say it. He noted the War­riors won a record 73 games dur­ing last year’s reg­u­lar sea­son, then couldn’t cap that feat with a cham­pi­onship, los­ing to the Cava­liers in seven games.

If they look back, the les­son of that Lak­ers team is sim­ple. Merely win­ning a cham­pi­onship is an ex­tra­or­di­nary feat by which his­tory is made.

Ron­ald Cortes Associated Press

STEPHEN CURRY, left, and Kevin Du­rant have en­joyed Golden State’s romp to the Fi­nals. The War­riors are 12-0 in the play­offs.

Otto Greule Jr. Getty Im­ages

ALLEN IVER­SON tow­ered over Ty­ronn Lue and Lak­ers in Game 1 of the 2001 Fi­nals. It was L.A.’s only loss of post­sea­son.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

ROBERT HORRY’S late three-point shot clinched Game 3 for the Lak­ers, who went 15-1 in 2001 play­offs.

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