On the Ball: Greatest NBA Series: Lakers-Spurs 2004
On the Ball: Greatest NBA Series: Lakers-Spurs 2004

Let’s face it: since Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in the ’90s, the NBA’s popularity has never been the same. The 1998 NBA finals between Chicago and Utah had an average Nielsen rating of 18.6. The highest it’s been since then is just a 12.1 (2001).

For an even longer time, the NBA has trailed the NFL in general terms of popularity.

Unlike the NFL where every game counts (unless you’re the Jets and it’s December) the NBA’s regular season is way too long and as a result, the games start to lose their meaning. Even for someone like me, an official sports fanatic, (I have more than the requisite number of tantrums thrown to qualify) I can barely sit through a full regular season NBA game.

But the NBA’s postseason is a different animal—few things are better than a good NBA playoff series—including the NFL’s version.

As exciting as college basketball’s sudden-death format is, it rarely produces repeat matchups year after year (like Duke versus Kentucky) that produce rivalries and too often upsets ruin a potential Final Four showdown between the best four teams in the country.

(As an aside here, this statement is from an admittedly bitter KU fan who’s seen his team put up more than their fair share of stinkjobs come tournament time, and still hasn’t gotten over the last one—it was to always-dangerous Stanford, by the way, which barely made the tourney. I’m sure fans of tournament stalwarts like Kentucky, Connecticut, Duke, or any of those smaller schools that always seem to catch the Jayhawks by surprise, love the current format.)

In any case, this year’s much anticipated Indiana/Miami matchup has been a long time coming—one year to be exact since last year’s entertaining clash that the Heat barely pulled out. And although it’s only two games into the best-of-seven series, it has all the makings of an instant classic: bitter rivals, meeting in the postseason for at least the second straight time, plenty of star power, and the defending champions putting their title belt on the line.

That said, it’ll have a hard time beating out the 2004 Western Conference semifinals between my Lakers and the defending champion Spurs as the greatest of this generation.

Oftentimes the Lakers/Kings matchup of 2002 is mentioned as the best, but in retrospect the officiating that favored the Lakers in Game 6 (surprisingly I was fine with it) has marred the series for good. In any case the Lakers/Spurs in 2004 had it all:

The buildup: Heading into the postseason, these two franchises had combined to win each of the last five NBA titles. The Lakers were especially hungry after the Spurs had done the unthinkable the year before in dropping them in six games to end their three-year run as champions. Incredibly the 2004 meeting marked the fourth straight year the two teams met in the playoffs.

The turning point: After dropping the first two games in San Antonio—each by double-digits—the Lakers returned to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4. Despite having Shaq, Kobe, and even Hall-of-Fame forward Karl Malone on the roster, there were doubts whether the Lakers could get past defending champion San Antonio without home-court advantage.

Amazingly, Lakers coach Phil Jackson refocused his squad and the Lakers won Game 3 and 4 to set up the pivotal Game 5 in San Antonio.

The memorable game: The Lakers led Game 5 nearly the entire way, until the Spurs mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to retake the lead with less than three minutes left—but only briefly.

The final minute of this game—featuring three lead changes—is what makes the entire series.

First Kobe hits a 20-foot jumper with 11.9 seconds left to put the Lakers back up 72–71. In most other contests, this would be the game-winner.

Then at the other end, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan makes an incredible fade-away jumper at the top of the key, despite Shaq all over him, with just 0.4 seconds left to put the Spurs back up by 1—much too my dismay. I was all ready for my patented tantrum.

For backdrop, the previous year saw the Lakers lose a heartbreaker in Game 5 to go down 3–2 in the series—they never recovered. Demoralized by the loss, the then three-time defending champs were blown out in Game 6 at home and their run was over. Plus, 0.4 seconds to execute a pass-and-shoot seemed nearly impossible at the time.

Undaunted by the celebration going on around him, Phil Jackson called timeout to draw up one last play.

With no one guarding the in-bounder (Gary Payton) and two players guarding Kobe, the ball went to secondary option Derek Fisher who made one of the most incredible game-winners ever. In one motion he (almost simultaneously) caught the ball, turned, and drained a ridiculous 16-footer to win it and stun the crowd—as well as the Spurs—for the dramatic win.

The anti-climactic ending: The series would shift back to Los Angeles for Game 6 where the Lakers’ star power took over (Shaq had 17 points, 19 rebounds while Kobe scored 26) in the win and the series was over with the Lakers claiming the last four games.

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