O'Neal caps Lakers' record run with another MVP
Updated: Saturday June 16, 2001 3:01 AM
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Maybe Shaquille O'Neal really is Superman.
O'Neal capped a remarkable 2 1/2 months for himself and the Los Angeles Lakers by being named MVP of the NBA Finals for the second straight year.
In another dominating effort, typical of the way he played in leading the Lakers to a best-ever 15-1 playoff record, O'Neal had 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in a 108-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.
"I've never seen a better player in my life," 76ers coach Larry Brown said.
"Shaq was the dominant player," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He was the guy who was the motivator and the energizer for our team. His defense was really one of the keys for us winning this game.
"He kept motivating the team, he kept his engines going. He was a great leader of this team. For him to win the second one, I think this is a validation of his greatness."
O'Neal had only three dunks, but used his quick feet and agility to continually maneuver around Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA's defensive player of the year, for short jumpers and finger rolls.
And, as Jackson said, his presence on defense was decisive.
"It's just part of a dream come true," O'Neal said. "I always knew we could do it. A lot of the year, we just messed around. The last 15, 20 games, we became a great team.
"I'm happy. I'm also greedy. I'm going to take a week off, come back and work out, try to get leaner and meaner and get another one next year."
When the 76ers drew within five points late in the third quarter, O'Neal and Philadelphia's Matt Geiger exchanged harsh words following a skirmish under the Los Angeles basket.
That turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened for the 76ers.
On the Lakers' next trip down court, an obviously determined O'Neal bulled through Mutombo for a three-point play.
That triggered a 16-6 run to finish the quarter, which O'Neal capped by making a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar like sky hook for an 83-68 lead, and the 76ers weren't closer than seven points after that.
Then, in the fourth quarter, after Mutombo and Geiger had fouled out, O'Neal missed the rim on a free throw, and allowed himself a thin smile.
A few seconds later, he swatted a shot by Tyrone Hill out of bounds with vigor.
"As great as I thought he was, I think this series showed what a complete player he is, what a great player he is," Brown said. "Each game, my appreciation grew for him."
O'Neal averaged 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds in the finals, and 30.4 points and 15.4 rebounds in the Lakers' 16 playoff games. He reached double figures in points and rebounds in every game.
It was the second straight championship for the Lakers, and with the 29-year-old O'Neal and 22-year-old Kobe Bryant under contract for five and four seasons, respectively, they figure as favorites for years to come.
Longtime Lakers assistant coach Bill Bertka said O'Neal stacks up favorably with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, considered the best big men of all time.
"Right now, Shaq's the biggest, strongest, quickest center ever to play the game," Bertka said. "He has very special gifts of quickness and agility that men of his size don't usually have.
"The thing about it is, he has potential to get better in a number of areas. He's already done a wonderful job of improving various aspects of his game."
Bertka was an assistant coach when Chamberlain and the Lakers won a record 33 straight games and the championship in 1971-72, and on four of the five Los Angeles championship teams in the '80s, when Abdul-Jabbar starred.
The Lakers finished the season by winning 23 of their final 24 games. It wasn't always like that during the season; in fact, it got downright ugly at times.
Although he argued otherwise, it appeared O'Neal didn't report to training camp in the best of shape last October, and he certainly wasn't consistently at his best until after the All-Star break.
Free throws were especially a problem -- he was below 40 percent for several months before finally starting to click.
In January, the simmering feud between O'Neal and Bryant was taken public, prompting coach Phil Jackson to call it "sandbox stuff," and O'Neal to distance himself from the media for a couple weeks.
"Not talking, ever," he said a couple days after things with Bryant came to a head.
At issue was how the Lakers should play -- was it O'Neal's team, or Bryant's team?
It turned out to be a joint effort, and the two hugged after the championship was sealed.