The 2002-03 NBA season did not start well for the LA Lakers. After a torrid 7-13 start to the season, the defending champions looked staggered. The Lakers started the season without dominant center Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was recovering from a toe injury sustained in the previous year’s playoffs.
This left the leadership duties on Kobe Bryant. Without Shaq, Bryant’s ability wasn’t enough to get the Lakers off to a good start. After 22 games, the Lakers were set to play the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center.
The Lakers got a significant injury boost with Shaq being declared fit to play. But the Mavericks were still a significant threat. The Mavs started the season strong, winning 17 of their 18 opening games. The performances of young duo Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were the catalyst for their hot start.
Two of the best duos in the NBA were going to clash. The game started off well for the Mavs, who made a lot of their shots. Whereas, the Lakers had a lot of missed shots in the first quarter, including a three from Kobe and a dunk from Shaq.
The Lakers cut the deficit back early in the second quarter, but the Mavs responded strongly. By the end of the first half, the Lakers were down by 28 points to the Mavericks. Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson had a tough task ahead of him.
LA Lakers start to rally
However, the Lakers were resilient. The Mavs and the Lakers had an even third quarter, ending at 25 to 24 in favor of the latter. There was still a 27-point deficit to erase for Kobe and Shaq to turn things around.
And turn things around they did! In the fourth quarter, an injured Kobe Bryant returned to the court, despite not being fit. But Bryant showed another glimpse of his ‘Mamba Mentality’, going off in the final stages, scoring 21 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter.
Shaq contributed with 26 points in the game himself. With 20 seconds left to play, Kobe and the Lakers got the ball. Kobe gook the ball from the inbound and beat Nick Van Exel to shoot the Lakers into the lead. With Dallas bringing the ball out for the final play, Kobe guarded Mavs point guard Steve Nash.
Bryant forced Nash to slip, who got the ball to Michael Finley. Finley missed a game-winning three-pointer, allowing the Lakers to complete one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.
The Lakers showed that the three-peat champions still had a lot left in the tank that season. But Dallas did not back down. Despite the crushing loss, they had a 60-win season and made it to the Western Conference Finals. But on this night, it was all about the Lakers – especially Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
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