Los Angeles Lakers: This week in team history, Showtime vs Sactown

The Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac (center) picks up his sixth foul in the fourth quarter as he and teammate Hedo Turkoglu (left) try to get the ball from the Los Angeles LAkers' Robert Horry (5) during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, Friday, May 31, 2002. (Photo by Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images)
The Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac (center) picks up his sixth foul in the fourth quarter as he and teammate Hedo Turkoglu (left) try to get the ball from the Los Angeles LAkers' Robert Horry (5) during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, Friday, May 31, 2002. (Photo by Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images) /

Sixteen years ago, the Los Angele Lakers and Sacramento Kings battled each other in a classic seven-game series that is universally regarded as one of the greatest in NBA history, and arguably the greatest in the decade of the 2000s

Los Angeles Lakers and basketball fans can rejoice as we finally have action again. Starting on May 31, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will face off to decide this year’s NBA world championship. If you’re like me, you’re probably starting to experience some withdrawal symptoms, given that the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in five years.

But it wasn’t a really long time ago that the purple and gold was the gold standard of the NBA and its reigning dynasty. Let’s take a trip back to those halcyon days of 2002 when the Lakers were going for a historic threepeat, and the super talented Sacramento Kings stood in the way.

For a couple years in the early 2000s, the Lakers-Kings rivalry was the most riveting story in the NBA. You had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the two best players in the NBA at the time, versus a Sacramento team that would prove to be a harbinger for the way that basketball would be played about a decade later.

Sure, the Kings had Chris Webber playing at an MVP level, but what made them attractive was the fact that they played an uptempo game, shared the ball and shot lights out from 3-point range. It also didn’t hurt that they ranked 6th in defense in the 2001-02 season.

But this rivalry also extended beyond basketball. It was Los Angeles, arguably the best city in our nation, the entertainment capital of the world, versus Sacramento, a sleepy, middle of the road town that is much more like middle America than big city cosmopolitan America. Even though Sacramento is California’s capital, it has a perceived inferiority complex, since it is always overlooked socially and culturally when people talk about the golden state.

Who could forget some of the verbal and physical jousting between players and coaches on both sides?

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There was Shaq calling the Sacramento Kings the Sacramento “Queens”. There was a nasty fight between the Lakers’ Rick Fox and the Kings’ Doug Christie that spilled over into the hallway of Staples Center, in a preseason game of all things. And who could forget this gem from then-Laker coach Phil Jackson, when he was asked about the Kings’ rowdy fans?

"”We’re talking about semi-civilized in Sacramento,” Jackson said last May. ”Those people are just maybe redneck in some form or fashion.”"

After winning 58 games in the 2001-02 season (second only to Sacramento’s 61 wins), the Lakers powered their way into the Western Conference Finals to face their intrastate rivals.

Just about everyone figured that this series was the real championship series that year, being that the underwhelming New Jersey Nets would meet the victor in the NBA Finals. As one would expect, this series was met with plenty of excitement and anticipation.

The Lakers won Game 1 easily after building a huge lead in the first quarter, and one had to wonder if this series would even be competitive. After all, it was the Lakers’ 24th playoff win in their last 26 playoff games, and their 12th consecutive road playoff win, an NBA record.

However, just prior to Game 2, Kobe Bryant came down with a nasty case of food poisoning that was supposedly traced to a cheeseburger he had ordered through room service in his Sacramento hotel room. He would have back to back subpar games, the Lakers lost Game 2, and suddenly things got interesting. Returning to Los Angeles for Game 3, the Kings rolled the Lakers and took a 2-1 lead, and suddenly the defending world champs were up against it.

They were really up against it when they fell behind 48-24 early in the second quarter of Game 4. Kobe still didn’t look like himself, Shaq was struggling through a 9-22 clunker, and Sacramento was dominating play at both ends. It looked like the Lakers’ dynasty in progress was coming to an end, and that Sacramento’s Kings were about to become the NBA’s kings.

But in the nick of time, Kobe scored 13 points in the second quarter, and the Lakers as a team played with something approaching a sense of desperation. They outrebounded the Kings and continually beat them to loose balls. The Lakers gradually chipped away at their deficit for the rest of the game, and I think you know how this game ended.

As it turned out, these two basketball titans were just getting warmed up. In the closing seconds of Game 5, Mike Bibby hit the game-winning shot for the Kings to give them a 3-2 series lead. The Lakers cried foul, as there were supposedly two of them that didn’t get called against the Kings in the closing seconds of that game.

Facing elimination in Game 6, the Lakers called on their leaders to keep them alive, as Shaq put up 41 points and 17 rebounds, while Kobe had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists in a 106-102 win. This was the infamous game where everyone was crying foul and claiming that the refs had missed calls against the Lakers or even that then-commissioner David Stern had ordered up a fix to make sure this great series would reach a seventh game.

Conspiracy theories aside, reach a seventh game it did, and it was an epic one. In my humble opinion, it was the greatest basketball game I’ve ever watched live on TV in my lifetime. The Kings surged ahead for a brief nine-point lead, but other than that, this was an exciting, fast-paced, hotly contested game that fittingly had to be decided in overtime.

With, for all intents and purposes, the world championship on the line, no one other than Mike Bibby seemed to want the ball for Sacramento. Bibby, almost by himself nearly managed to beat the Lakers with a string of clutch jumpers. But the purple and gold outlasted their rivals with a 112-106 win.

Although Shaq had 35 points and 13 rebounds and Kobe posted 30 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and no turnovers, it was a team effort. Every Laker starter other than Derek Fisher had at least 10 rebounds. In addition, 107 of their 112 points was scored by their starting five, who played 200 out of a possible 265 minutes.

The Lakers officially won their third straight NBA championship against the New Jersey Nets just 10 days later, and all was good in Laker nation (at least for the moment).

As for the Kings, it was thought they would be contending for the NBA title for at least a few more years to come. But as it turned out, that was their last hurrah, as that was their last trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Next: 50 Greatest Players In Lakers Franchise History

For at least a couple weeks in the spring of 2002, Los Angeles could feel like they were the real capital of California over Sacramento, as Shaq would proclaim at their championship parade that June.