PHILADELPHIA -- Turns out, Kobe Bryant was all wrong. The road to the NBA championship didn't go through Los Angeles after all.
Bryant's Lakers never even had to leave the City of Brotherly Love to successfully defend their crown because the path to postseason history went straight through the First Union Center -- and the Liberty Bell-sized hearts of the Philadelphia 76ers -- in a title-clinching 108-96 victory Friday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
In repeating as world champs, the Lakers recorded the best winning percentage in postseason history at .937 with a 15-1 mark. Ironically, the previous mark was held by Philadelphia's last NBA champion, the Julius Erving-led 1983 Sixers who went 12-1 (.923).
In becoming the first team to go unbeaten on the road, the Lakers set the record for consecutive road wins in one postesason with eight, topping the 1995 Houston Rockets' seven.
"You can never line up and play those teams (from the past)," said forward Rick Fox in trying to assess the 2000-01 Lakers' place in history. "But we have an argument because of the way we performed in the playoffs."
"We've got to be at the top of the best. I mean, no one has ever gone 15-1," bragged backup guard Tyronn Lue. "No team ever went 8-0 on the road, so I think this team definitely ranks with the best teams in NBA history."
O'Neal clinched the MVP award with 29 points and 13 rebounds, but it was Derek Fisher's 3-point bombing that completed the repeat. The point guard, who had 18 points, sank his sixth 3-pointer of the night with 51.4 seconds left to ruin another late Philadelphia rally.
For the game, the Lakers made 12 of 17 threes, with Fox (20 points) going 3-for-3 and Bryant 2-for-3 in adding 26 points. Philadelphia made just four of 15 threes in shooting 41.1 percent (37-of-90) from the field.
"Winning a first championship is like a honeymoon. You just have to prove to everybody that we could do it," said Bryant, who also had 12 rebounds and six assists. "This time around, we went through so much adversity, so many ups and downs. It feels good to win it."
Allen Iverson, who left the game to chants of "MVP! MVP!" after picking up his fifth foul late in the game, finished with a game-high 37 points. He then left the arena without speaking to the media after refusing to wait for Bryant to leave the interview room.
Iverson never got to back up his words at the end of Game 2 with Bryant, who debated with the Sixers star about how the series would play out in Philadelphia. Friday was the same old story. Even though Dikembe Mutombo turned in his usual double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds and Tyrone Hill showed up for the first time in the series with 18 points and 13 boards, the banged-up Sixers once again couldn't match the Lakers' talented supporting cast.
"The better team won," Sixers forward Matt Geiger said. "They outplayed us. They deserve it. I tip my cap to them."
"I don't know if I could be any more proud of my team," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "I had three guys playing with broken ankles. The effort my group put forth against a phenomenal club was just incredible."
Brown, who placed an emphasis on a fast start after his Sixers fell into double-digit, first-half deficits the past two games, went with a quicker starting five, replacing second-year small forward Jumaine Jones with Eric Snow for a three-guard look.
The smaller lineup gave Brown the spark he was looking for as Philadelphia raced out to a 10-3 lead. It also energized Iverson, who hit four of his first five shots. Iverson's intensity, however, drew him into picking up his third foul with 42.4 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Lakers methodically erased a 27-21 Sixers lead behind O'Neal's inside power, Fox's hustle and some long-range bombing. With Iverson cautiously avoiding his fourth foul, Los Angeles built a 49-40 on Bryant's first field goal of the game -- a wide-open 3-pointer with 3:43 remaining in the half.
Iverson had 19 points at the break on 7-of-17 shooting, but Philadelphia hung tough thanks to the rejuvenation of Hill. The power forward had been having a miserable series, shooting just 30 percent and averaging 3.8 points a game, but he bounced back with nine points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
Mutombo added eight points and eight rebounds. However, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year was often rendered helpless against against O'Neal, who poured in 17 first-half points -- 11 in the second quarter -- on 7-of-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds.
"It was a great challenge. It was not easy," Mutombo said. "To show the world that I was playing against a dominant player, I have to respect myself."
The Lakers shot just 38.1 percent in the first half on 16-of-42 shooting but hit six of nine 3-pointers to take a 52-48 halftime lead. Fox and Fisher each had two threes, Fox scoring 11 points. The Sixers made only one of six threes in shooting 44.4 percent from the field (20-of-45).
Iverson, who suffered a right flank contusion at the end of the first half, missed six of his next eight shots after picking up his third foul. He was just 8-for-20 from the floor when the Lakers took a 66-55 lead in the third period on Bryant's hanging, double-clutch drive. The league MVP buried a 3-pointer and a long two in Fisher's face to cut L.A.'s lead to 67-62.
After Snow's jumper brought Philly within 70-64, the Lakers appeared to put the series away with a quarter-closing 13-4 run. Los Angeles scored on five straight trips down the floor, getting to the line on the first four before Fisher sank a 3-pointer for a 78-66 lead.
Meanwhile, Philly's frustration was mounting. After Rodney Buford knocked Fox to the floor with an elbow for an offensive foul, Iverson was whistled for his fourth foul when he pushed off Fisher with his right arm as the Lakers enjoyed an 83-68 cushion after three quarters.
"It was an unbelievable run for us in the playoffs," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who earned his eighth ring. "We played at a level in which we thought and visualized ourselves playing during the course of the year."
L.A. padded its lead to 19 at 87-68 early in the fourth, but the Sixers stayed true to their never-say-die attitude. Iverson's driving jumper cut the gap to 93-82 and force a Lakers timeout with 5:48 remaining. After Fisher's fifth 3-pointer of the night pushed L.A. out to a 96-84 lead, Iverson responded with a three of his own to keep the Sixers' comeback hopes alive at 96-87 with 4:30 to go.
O'Neal fouled out Geiger and Mutombo on back-to-back possessions, sinking one of two free throws each time for a 98-87 Lakers lead. Fox's follow shot put them up by 13. Still, the Sixers refused to go quietly.
Hill's three-point play made it an eight-point game with 1:51 to play. A free throw by Snow cut it to 100-93. But Fisher sank a 3-pointer to put Los Angeles up by 10 with less than a minute left. Even after Aaron McKie's 3-pointer made it a seven-point game again, Brown decided to take out Iverson and Snow to allow the soldout crowd to salute them with standing ovations.
"If you're a tough team and you play the right way, the truth comes out," Snow said. "There are no flukes that are going to win a championship when you got a seven-game series."