The Lakers got both things accomplished last night, earning their third straight NBA title with a 113-107 win over the New Jersey Nets in Game 4 of the league championship series.
For the series, O'Neal, who grew up in Newark, averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 60 percent from the field. And most amazingly, O'Neal, who is a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, set a Finals record for free throws attempted (68) and made (45) in a four-game series, as well as for most points overall (145).
"[The championship] says we are a great team," said O'Neal, who joined Michael Jordan as the only players to win three straight Finals MVP awards. "Everybody stuck to their role, everybody stuck to the script, everybody believed. Nobody got down, even when times were so-called hard. Thank God for both of the Phils in my life, my coach Phil Jackson, and Phil Harrison, [his stepfather]."
These Lakers claimed their place in history, becoming the fifth team in league history to win three straight titles, and their coach, Phil Jackson tied Boston legend Red Auerbach with nine championships.
"Looks like I'm going to have to get my own cigar out of my briefcase in the locker room, because I didn't get one FedExed from Red," said Jackson, who also passed Pat Riley for most postseason victories with 156. "I'm looking forward to getting back here and going for a 10th."
Said O'Neal: "He knows that if he blasts me in the paper, I won't respond. I'll just go out and dominate the next game. I realize that if it wasn't for Phil, I wouldn't have any championships. He's one of the greatest, and hopefully next year, he will be the greatest."
Bryant, at 23 the youngest man to win three titles, said, "It's a blessing. I've been blessed to play with a good organization."
These Lakers, in winning the 14th championship in franchise history, take a special spot as the first Los Angeles team to sweep its way to a title. In addition, they become the first team that Jackson, who headed a pair of three-peat teams in Chicago, has coached that has swept the Finals.
The Nets, who won 52 regular-season games, a franchise-record for their 26 years in the NBA, and reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history, fought gamely and challenged the Lakers in every game of the series, falling just short.
"We should be holding our heads up high, because we got to a point that nobody in this room ever thought we could get to," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "We have a very, very young team, and if they continue to improve, we should be back here."
As an example, the Nets, who trailed by four after three quarters, started the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run - Jason Kidd hit a three-pointer, Lucious Harris was fouled while making a layup and sank the free throw, Kenyon Martin hit one of two foul shots. The Nets appeared to be in business, leading 87-84.
But Bryant, who had 25 points, hit a three-pointer, one of 11 the Lakers made last night, that tied the score at 89 with 8:32 left. The teams exchanged leads for two minutes before Derek Fisher hit a 21-footer to make the score 97-93 Los Angeles. O'Neal was fouled on the play by Nets reserve center Jason Collins, and made the free throw for a 98-93 lead.
That's as close as the Nets would get. Martin, who had a career-high 35 points, got a slam with 2:17 to get the Nets to within five again at 104-99. But Fisher hit a baseline jumper with 1:57 to go, and after Martin missed a 20-footer at the 1:39 mark, O'Neal scored on a turnaround with 1:24 to go, staking Los Angeles to a 108-99 lead and sending some fans to the exits.
"They've been down this road more than once," said Kidd, the engineer behind the turnaround season, who had 13 points and 12 assists last night. "They were the best team, and unfortunately, we couldn't get it done. And Shaq was the player he's always been, which is dominant."
Indeed, O'Neal was that and so much more, winning a championship in his back yard. The 7-foot-1 giant, who lasted through the playoffs with an assortment of injuries, including a bad toe, bad ankles, and a bad shoulder, said he spent part of Tuesday night sitting in the park that he grew up playing in, visualizing this moment.
"As a youngster, I would play with the raggedy basketball that my father got me," said O'Neal. "I just stuck with it, and all my dreams have come true."