O'Neal, Lakers wrap-up NBA title

Tuesday, June 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O'Neal's mother wrapped her arms around his neck. His sister latched on to his arm. Friends, teammates and strangers reached in for a piece of this beautiful, triumphant group hug.

Tears began to bead in his eyes, but Shaq didn't flinch under the weight. He was strong enough to carry them all.

Moments later, amid the confetti and cacophony of the Los Angeles Lakers' 116-111 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Monday night, O'Neal raised two trophies above his head. One was for being an NBA champion and one was for being the MVP of the finals.

The game's most dominant force finally had willed his team to the only rewards he said he truly desired in his eight-year career. It was closure, it was vindication, it was a wish fulfilled.

The Lakers' big man had earned one more nickname: The Big Champion.

``This is my dream here,'' he said. ``This is what I wanted when I came to LA. It's the only thing I play this game for.''

Part of Los Angeles' seventh title — its first since 1988 — belongs to Kobe Bryant, the young shooter who might someday be as good as his best performances. Another part belongs to Phil Jackson, who won his seventh championship as a coach by blending the Lakers' disparate talents into a cohesive unit.

But the biggest part belongs to O'Neal, who averaged 38 points and 16.6 rebounds in the finals. Throughout nearly eight months of basketball, he simply carried a team like few players in the game's history have been able to do.

He became the third player to win the league MVP award, the All-Star Game MVP award and the finals MVP award in the same year.

``Give the credit to the big guy,'' Bryant said. ``This was the moment he was waiting for his whole life.''

O'Neal had 41 points, 12 rebounds and an unapologetically bad 3-for-12 performance from the foul line in Game 6. He took charge in a critical fourth-quarter stretch with a series of big plays that negated an inspired Pacers comeback.

Indiana, shooting as proficiently as it did in its Game 5 blowout win, led for much of the game and decisively outplayed the Lakers until the fourth quarter. While O'Neal and his mates were playing for a title, the unflappable, veteran Pacers were playing for coach Larry Bird, who entered retirement with their loss.

Jalen Rose had 29 points and Reggie Miller added 25 in another stellar shooting display, and the Pacers hit 12 3-pointers. Indiana held a six-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

``We won the first three rounds (of the game), but lost the most important one, and that was the fourth round,'' Miller said.

The Lakers won two of the final three games in the series despite allowing the Pacers to score 116.3 points per game in them. Instead of buckling down on defense, Los Angeles simply outscored the Pacers with inside baskets from O'Neal and a surprising proficiency from outside.

The Lakers had to score 37 points in the fourth quarter to finally shake Indiana.

Robert Horry, Glen Rice and Rick Fox all hit critical late jumpers as Los Angeles matched Indiana shot for shot. Fox, who muted his own scoring abilities to help the Lakers chase a title, wore a look of pure joy after he buried a 3-pointer with 8:23 left to give Los Angeles a 94-90 lead.

O'Neal was fouled on three straight baskets early in the period, but he missed all three free throws as Indiana desperately hung on. Minutes later, he had consecutive rebound dunks that sent the laid-back L.A. fans into a frenzy.

``I didn't know if we could really learn a lesson after not closing teams out over and over again,'' said forward A.C. Green, the link between the Lakers' title teams of 1988 and 2000.

``But once they started to smell the championship, they started playing defense. To see these guys really rally around each other and mature in the playoffs, I'm very impressed.''

Bryant had 26 points and 10 rebounds in an erratic 8-for-27 shooting performance, alternating sublime shots with clunkers. He will have much better memories of his performance in Game 4, when he stepped in for a fouled-out O'Neal and scored eight points in overtime of Los Angeles' victory.

``I'm numb. I'm just numb right now,'' the 21-year-old Bryant said. ``I didn't know champagne burned this much when it gets in your eyes.''

Rice, a free agent who complained about his role during the finals and may have been playing his last game for the Lakers, had 16 points, including three 3-pointers.

``It's like an aspirin,'' he said. ``I've had the aspirin and now I feel great.''

Some of the 10,000 fans outside Staples Center needed aspirin on Tuesday morning. They set fire to four vehicles, including two police cars and a TV news van, and lighted several bonfires to celebrate.

The Pacers' bus was prevented from leaving for almost 2 1/2 hours because of the crowd, and fans mobbed O'Neal's SUV as it left the arena. Some of the Lakers bided their time with champagne and conversation while waiting for things to cool down.

Indiana tied the game 103-103 on a 3-pointer by Rose with 5:04 left, but that was where Los Angeles took over. Horry, who won his third career title, hit a leaner from the lane, and Ron Harper, who won his fourth, stole the ball from Mark Jackson.

Once the Lakers took a significant lead, the Pacers took one more try at the pre-emptive Hack-a-Shaq defense that was this postseason's biggest contribution to basketball strategy. O'Neal missed three of four free throws before Jackson took him out with 2:27 left.

He came back in less than a minute, but Austin Croshere hit two free throws to cut Los Angeles' lead to 110-109. Rice had two free throws to give the Lakers breathing room.

After misses by both teams, Miller jacked up a 30-footer that was way off. Bryant got the ball, got fouled and hit two free throws.

Dale Davis, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds in a tremendous performance, dunked for Indiana to make it a three-point game with 5.4 seconds left, but Bryant again went to the line and calmly sank two more to clinch it.

As he walked to the sideline, Bryant pointed to his ring finger, the one that will soon boast a championship ring.

Notes: The Lakers' downtown parade is planned for Wednesday. ... It was the 12th title in franchise history for the Lakers, who moved to Southern California from Minneapolis in 1960. ... O'Neal jokingly had one word for Dr. Jerry Buss when he joined the Lakers' owner on the interview dais: ``Extension. Extension.'' ... Los Angeles outrebounded Indiana 44-41. The team that won the rebounding battle won each of the six games in the series. ... Mark Jackson had 11 assists for Indiana. Harper had nine for the Lakers.