By: Randy Cruz (@cruzr83)

There are five main images that is still in your brain 11 years later between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals: 1) Robert Horry’s game winning three pointer in Game 4, 2) Mike Bibby’s game winner in Game 5, 3) the horrific officiating all throughout Game 6 (Bibby gets popped in the mouth by Kobe Bryant and no foul was called), 4) Peja Stojakovic airballs a wide open three pointer that could’ve given the Kings the lead with 10 seconds left in Game 7 and 5) Doug Christie throwing up an off the backboard shot that could've tied the game in overtime in Game 7.

The Lakers would defeat the Kings 4-3 in the series – and it remains as one of the greatest Western Conference Finals series in NBA history.

These two teams had a major rivalry in the 2000s – even though the Lakers won every playoff series against the Kings throughout that era – but their rivalry culminated in the 2002 Western Conference Finals where the Lakers were going for their third straight championship, and they met an excellent Kings team that took them to the limit.

People ask me “What’s your favorite, or most memorable Western Conference Final series?My answer? 2002 between Lakers and Kings.

Reasons?

One of the main reasons is that this series did go seven games, and every game was down to the wire must see television.

Second reason was that the Lakers were going for the three-peat and you were tuned in to see if they would be dethroned by a Kings team that was the number one seed in the playoffs – and had the roster that can compete with the Lakers.

Third reason was that aside from Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Chris Webber and Mike Bibby was developing into one of the league’s best duos.

Fourth reason would be that both teams hated each other – and it was well established. When that happens, it makes great television, especially in the NBA Playoffs.

Shaq being Shaq: “We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Not at all” Remember that? I do.

Back to the series…

The first three games were good – but things got interesting in Game 4 when the Kings, who had a 2-1 series lead, were in the driver seat with a 20 point lead in Los Angeles.

Of course, the NBA is a game of runs, and the Lakers came back with a memorable run. With the Kings up 99-97, we see Kobe Bryant take a shot, miss, then Vlade Divac tips the missed layup by Shaquille O’Neal back out to the three-point line – only to have Robert Horry standing by his lonesome for the open shot – and boom! – Staples Center goes bonkers as Horry nails the game winner (with Chris Webber's hand absurdly in his face), sending the series back to Sacramento tied at 2-2.

Game 5 is where we saw a star in the making in Mike Bibby. (Let’s not act like I was the only one that bought a Bibby swingman jersey during that time)

Lakers were leading 91-90 with :11 seconds on the clock. Within the blink of an eye, Bibby in-bounded the ball to Webber, Webber set the pick, Fisher fell to the ground and Bibby curled off the pick for the shot and Arco Arena erupted.

Kings won Game 5, 92-91, behind Bibby’s 23 points, 15 coming in the second half.

That clutch shot made Mike Bibby a household name, plus a richer man as he inked a 7-year, $80.5 million contract.

For the record, Sacramento’s home court will always be Arco Arena to me, SleepTrain Arena? No thanks.

Unfortunately, we get to Game 6…

The Kings were up 3-2 in the series and were looking to close out the series in Los Angeles. The New Jersey Nets were awaiting the winner of this series to meet in the NBA Finals.

Game 6 proved to be the most infamous game of the entire series. The Lakers went on to win the game – but several disputable calls had eyebrows raising from everyone from only fans – but media members as well, clearly indicating that Game 6 suffered through horrific officiating.

When Mike Bibby gets elbowed in the face by Kobe Bryant and the referees don’t call the foul – that’s when you know something is up.

The Lakers shot 40 foul shots in the game – BUT it was their 27 foul shots ALONE in the 4th quarter that had fans in amazement. The Kings foul shots in the 4th quarter? Just 9.

(Lakers 21-27, Kings 7-9)

Both teams complained about the officiating throughout the series. The Lakers complained about the officiating in Games 2 & 5 – but Game 6 was obviously the epitome of the major officiating referee issues in the series.

Most fans and members of the media call Game 6 the most controversial and worst-officiated NBA playoff game of all time.

Game 7 would ultimately be the test for the Lakers – on the road trying to advance to their 3rd straight NBA Finals in a hostile environment at Arco Arena.

This game wound up going into overtime – as if the series couldn’t have provided more drama. Shaquille O’Neal, arguably one of the best centers in NBA history, came up big for his team as his counterpart – Kobe Bryant – did not have a field goal in the fourth quarter and in the overtime session. O’Neal posted up 35 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks. 2 assists and didn’t miss a single free throw in overtime.

As Shaq always said, “it’s not about how many free throws you make – it’s when you make them” – and that seemed true in this crucial game.

The Kings – on the other hand – couldn’t make their foul shots in Game 7. They were 14-30 in the game and majority of the offense was in Mike Bibby’s hands, who did all he could to make big play after big play.

The pressure of Game 7 can get to people. It’s normal. It’s natural to be nervous in a big game setting – unless you’ve been there more than once. Peja Stojakovic knows how the pressure felt all too well, as he would like to pretend Game 7 on June 2, 2002 never happened.

Stojakovic was supposed to be the floor spacer for Webber and Divac – but when you’re not hitting shots – the defense clamps down on the bigs and the paints becomes crowded with Lakers players.

With his team down by one with less than 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Stojakovic shoots what has to be the best open looking shot all series – a wide open three in the corner off a pass by Hedo Turkoglu. Stojakovic now has the opportunity to give his team the lead with less than 10 seconds in the fourth…

Air ball…

More like air ball that sailed wide right was the best way to describe Peja’s shot – and coming from one of the best shooters in the league – that surprised everyone, including those in Arco Arena that night.

Even after that missed opportunity, Bibby kept his team in the game by forcing overtime, knocking down crucial free throws.

Overtime was a game of can you top this? Bucket after bucket. It was great drama unfolding. Who wanted it more? Lakers or Kings? Both wanted it, but only one team could advance.

Mike Bibby was automatic in this game – overtime included. At one point, it seemed as if he was the only King who was willing to take the big shots. Webber did hit the first jumper of the overtime, but this was clearly Bibby’s game to win. He put the team up 106-104 with 2:12 left in overtime – and the Kings would not score a single point after that.

The Kings had a chance to tie the game in overtime as they were down 108-106 on a Doug Christie long jumper. Bibby, who looked like he was guarded by the entire city of Los Angeles as he penetrated to the paint, found an open Christie on the wing.

Brick...

Christie’s foot was on the line so it would’ve been a tie game if he made it – but his shot was just as ugly as Stojakovic’s, hitting nothing but glass.

Lakers rebounded the ball, Derek Fisher made two free throws and now were up 110-106 with 14.6 seconds left. Webber missed an attempted three-pointer. Kobe rebounded the ball, was fouled by Bibby, made two free throws.

Game over. Lakers 112, Kings 106. Lakers win series 4-3.

Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals. Mike Bibby finished with 29 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Once this game was extended into overtime, the two-time defending champs prevailed when it mattered most – in Game 7, on the road, in a hostile environment and unquestionably their toughest opponent in the playoffs during their three-peat era.

The Lakers were a team that had the confidence and championship experience to withstand every punch Sacramento threw at them.

The Kings (mostly Mike Bibby) threw haymakers all series, but it was the Lakers who threw that one knockout punch that sent the Kings home.