The term "three-peat" was first used in sports by Pat Riley, who coached the Los Angeles Lakers during their attempt to win a third consecutive championship in the 1988-1989 season. They came up short that year, losing in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons (who would be attempting the three-straight feat two seasons later).
However, Riley's dream was not realized by a team until the 1992-1993 season, when the Chicago Bulls won their third straight. The Bulls repeated this accomplishment in the 1997-1998 season.
The common factor between the two Chicago three-peats had been Phil Jackson coaching great players. That scenario seemed to be playing out again in the 2001-2002 season, with the L.A. Lakers attempting to win a third consecutive title.
Kobe Bryant's 2002 season would be among the more efficient of his career. Continuing the trend set the season before, Bryant and teammate Shaquille O'Neal were equally effective on offense, and Bryant's perimeter defense was among the best in the NBA.
A 58-24 regular season record was good for second best in the league, behind the powerful Sacramento Kings. The Lakers would then coast through the first two rounds with a record of 7-1, bringing back memories of their dominating run a season before. However, a major road block would be met in the conference finals, in the form of the Kings.
Bryant would lead the Lakers in scoring during the three of the first five games of the series, but the Lakers would fall behind 3-2. In the pivotal Game Six in Los Angeles with their season on the line, Bryant and O'Neal would provide a combined 62 points to send the series to a Game Seven in Sacramento.
The two Laker stars would answer the bell again in Game Seven, with Bryant providing 30 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists, and O'Neal producing 35 points and 13 rebounds. After surviving a powerful Western Conference, the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets seemed a formality in the Lakers' attempt to three-peat.
Game One (Lakers win, 99-94)
Statistics: 43 MIN, 6-16 FG, 0-2 3FG, 10-11 FT, 3 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 22 PTS
In Game One, Bryant would be overshadowed once again by O'Neal. Shaq would finish with 36 points and 16 rebounds. Kobe was quietly the second best player on the floor, with his defense of Jason Kidd and third quarter scoring being key.
After L.A. opened up a double digit lead in the first half, New Jersey would battle back to trail only 60-56 with 5:23 remaining in the third. This comeback attempt was quickly squelched by Bryant, who scored 11 points in the remainder of the quarter to give Los Angeles an insurmountable nine-point lead entering the final stanza.
Game Two (Lakers win, 106-83)
Statistics: 42 MIN, 9-15 FG, 3-3 3FG, 3-4 FT, 8 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 4 TO, 24 PTS
In a dominating Game Two victory, the Lakers stars would shine the brightest. Bryant's most efficient career NBA Finals game would be overlooked with the ultra-dominant play of O'Neal. Shaquille would finish the game with 40 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, as the Lakers proved to be too much for New Jersey to handle.
Kobe was at his most efficient offensively in Game Two, and his defense of Kidd was stifling. Kidd would shoot 6-17 with five turnovers, as Bryant's hounding defense in the half court was at its best.
Game Three (Lakers win, 106-103)
Statistics: 46 MIN, 14-23 FG, 1-3 3FG, 7-10 FT, 6 REB, 4 AST, 1 STl, 2 BLK, 6 TO, 36 PTS
Playing their first NBA Finals game at home, New Jersey came out determined not to fall behind 3-0. Kobe Bryant had other ideas. Bryant played arguably his best Finals game to this point in his career, and had 12 points in the critical fourth quarter.
Trailing for most of the game, L.A. began the fourth quarter with Shaq on the bench, and Bryant began the comeback. His jumpshot with three minutes to play gave the Lakers their first lead of the fourth.
Twice in the final minute New Jersey cut the lead to two points, and twice Kobe answered with isolation jumpshots over Kidd's spectacular defense. Bryant's shot with 19 seconds remaining pushed the Los Angeles lead to four again, effectively ending the game.
Kobe would finish with 36, a career high in the Finals. For just the second time in his NBA Finals career, Bryant would outshine O'Neal, despite Shaq's 35 point effort.
Between this performance and Bryant's performance in Game Four of the 2000 NBA Finals, it became clear that L.A. could not win with O'Neal dominating for three quarters before a Hack-A-Shaq fourth. They needed Bryant to be the fourth quarter closer.
Game Four (Lakers win, 113-107)
Statistics: 44 MIN, 7-16 FG, 2-3 3FG, 9-11 FT, 6 REB, 8 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 25 PTS
The Lakers became the fifth team in NBA history to win three consecutive titles, and did so by keeping with the same formula that had worked throughout the first three games of the NBA Finals.
After O'Neal dominated the first three quarters (finishing with 34 points), Bryant took over in the fourth. His 11 points in the final quarter would be crucial, as the Nets once again climbed back into the game. Another overlooked part of his game was his continued defensive dominance of Kidd, who would shoot 5-14 in the game, and under 40 percent for the series.
Again playing second fiddle to O'Neal, Bryant had closed the gap between the two players, and had become L.A.'s designated closer. The discovery of this role for Bryant would lead to a career of huge fourth quarters in the NBA Finals. O'Neal would win his third consecutive Finals MVP award, but Bryant had finally become his equal on the game's biggest stage.
After turning in perhaps the greatest series ever by a non-MVP the season before, Bryant would top that accomplishment with one of the best Finals by any player, MVP or otherwise.
Two seasons later, his value would surpass O'Neal's in one of the more dramatic NBA seasons in history.
Kobe Bryant 2002 NBA Finals averages (four games):
26.75 points per game
5.75 rebounds per game
5.25 assists per game
51.43 field goal percentage
43.75 minutes per game