By Chuck Mindenhall
December 2, 2016
Revisiting the time Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson set the world’s biggest stage on fire during the 2001 NBA Finals
The 2001 NBA Finals was the closest we’ve come to a clash between a golden dynasty and a playground juggernaut. The Los Angeles Lakers that year, led by Shaquille O’Neal, were historical in the playoffs, having swept the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio Spurs heading into the Finals. Though they began to bicker that season, the tandem of superstars Shaq and Kobe Bryant, with a glittering cast of notable role players (and Phil Jackson coaching), were 11-0 heading into Game One against the Philadelphia 76ers in Los Angeles.
They were untouchable.
The Sixers? They had Allen Iverson — a flickering, unguardable, league iconoclast who rolled in as something more than a one-man marvel — Iverson showed up as an act of defiance. He had Dikembe Mutombo and Aaron McKie with him, but the Sixers’ playoff run was a manifestation of Iverson’s will. Philadelphia had fought tooth-and-nail to get to its first Finals since 1983, back when Julius Erving put the city on the basketball map, having ousted the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. Nothing came easy. It was a tightrope, and Iverson spun plates the whole way.
Allen freaking Iverson. The Answer. The quickest first step, and the slipperiest second. The acrobat of the open court, and the electron of the paint. Nobody created his shot in such beautiful fits; nobody made it look as graceful. Iverson planted defenders into the court and watered them. A twitch was all it took, a sliver of space and ankles began to break. Iverson put the team on his back and carried it with swagger.
Still, when he showed up to Los Angeles for Game 1, it was a proverbial David vs. Goliath scenario: the 7-foot-1 dominant center O’Neal, still in his prime and dominating the league, against the 6-foot-cold Iverson, the game’s most majestic freelancer. Shaq had Kobe to fall back on. Iverson had his instincts. In Game One, it was all on display.
On that unforgettable night Iverson and Shaq dueled into overtime, combining for 92 points. If it was a foregone conclusion that the Lakers would win the series heading in, yet that narrative would have to age behind the awe of Iverson’s heroics. In a game that Shaq had 44 points and 20 rebounds, Iverson — arriving in LA with his darting eyes, the tattoo on his neck, the sleeve, the corn-rows arranged like expressionist leaves — scribbled his signature on the court with smoking rubber soles. He hung 48 on the Lakers. He stole the game like a bandit.
Nobody could guard him. He left Kobe in knots at one point with a stop between-the-legs dribble and fade away. With the shot clock running down, he took a pass below the basket, tiptoed to the perimeter, and sank a shot right at the buzzer. It was all so fluid. He hit Eric Snow with an around-the-back pass in stride on a fast break. He breezed by Shaq on a breakaway, and later lofted one over the big man after stopping on a dime and springing backwards like the that patch of court was a springboard. Swish. Impossible movement. Impossible mastery of movement. The commentators called him “fearless,” and he was. It was AI against the world — a propulsive force with no visible reins, and a chip on his shoulder the size of his box score.
In the closing moments of that first game, Iverson chucked the daggers. He hit a three down the stretch to get the game into overtime, and hit one in the extra frame to give Philly a four-point lead. The next time down the court was classic Iverson. He abused Tyronn Lue, bewitched him with the dribble, leaving him lunging at his vapor trail in the corner. After sinking the shot, Iverson stepped over the fallen Lue with deliberate slowness and glared, like a boxing champion who’d said all along that you didn’t want none.
“Everybody counted us out,” Iverson said after. “We’re not going to act like we won it all right now, because we still got some more business ahead of us. We’re just going to keep on playing hard and what happens, happens.”
The Lakers would recover and take Game Two, before heading to Philadelphia and winning three straight to clinch the series. “Mr. Big Shot” Robert Horry dealt a deathblow in Game Three with clutch three-pointer late, and Kobe was Kobe. O’Neal was the series’ MVP, averaging 33 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game. “Big Aristotle” was too much to overcome.
Game One would go down as Iverson’s only ever victory in an NBA Finals, yet it was a thing of beauty. In the 2001 playoffs, he averages 31.4 points per game, yet none finer than his 48 against perhaps the best post-season team ever assembled. That opening game felt like giants colliding — transcendent players who transcended already heightened expectations. Shaq, the dominant center who put out the rap album Shaq Diesel to ready acclaim, and Iverson, “The Answer,” the very embodiment of hip-hop who gave the game a rapid pulse.
Iverson won the game, but Shaq won the series. They were both inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame this year, after long careers in the league. Yet if you could distill their individual greatness into a single example through 33 combined seasons in the NBA, that night — on June 6, 2001 — would stand out. As far as snapshots go, that clash was one for the ages.