Lakers sweep series, 4-0
Game 1: May 6
Lakers 108, Sacramento 105
All the Kings' Horses . . .
The Sacramento Kings believed they were men enough to stand with Shaquille O'Neal, and so they awoke the next day with his Dunk emblem on their foreheads, with his game on their breaths, and with his roaring confidence on their consciences.
They played O'Neal straight up, and took their defeat the same way. He scored 44 points in 44 minutes, many of the points on ferocious dunks, and the Lakers beat the Kings, 108-105, at Staples Center in the first game of a best-of-seven series in the Western Conference semifinals.
Playing for the first time in a week, and therefore finding themselves with none of the thrust generated by a winning streak--12 games now--that dates to April 3, the Lakers did the logical thing. They located O'Neal, entrenched deep in the lane, often with only Vlade Divac or Scot Pollard on his hip, and they spent three quarters honing their entry passes.
O'Neal finished two points short of his career playoff high and added 21 rebounds and seven blocked shots. He took 11 of his rebounds on offense, seven of those in the second half. He had 13 points and nine rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Divac fouled out and Pollard was on his way there when the Lakers put away the Kings, finally when O'Neal blocked a Jason Williams layup with fewer than 20 seconds remaining and the Lakers ahead by three points.
He made 17 of 32 shots and might have scored 50 points had his free throws not gone sideways on him in the fourth quarter. The rest of the Lakers did what they had to do--get out of O'Neal's way, guard their guys, hold onto the ball, and then smack him on the back on his way off the floor.
Kobe Bryant, whose sore ribs afforded him little opportunity to practice in the week since the Lakers eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers, scored 29 points, but missed 13 of 23 shots. As it was, Bryant and O'Neal combined for 29 of the Lakers' 31 third-quarter points, and 46 of their 55 second-half points.
"You can do nothing, especially with the rules. They're going to change next year, but obviously not this year. Just give us a chance. Call three seconds or something. You can't stop him. He's going to score every time down there."
Sacramento center, on Shaquille O'Neal
They Just Can't Stop O'Neal
Game 2: May 8
Lakers 96, Sacramento 90
The moment will come when Shaquille O'Neal is measured against the greatest forces the NBA has seen, and he'll almost certainly have an opinion on it. It's what makes him who he is.
For now, however, he is the sole problem of the Sacramento Kings, a game, athletic team that nevertheless is two games from summer, because O'Neal is harder and even more athletic and on top of a game that has no current bounds. From the early-season issues with conditioning and free throws, not to mention contrary personalities in his own locker room, O'Neal steeled his game and focus, in an order that matters not at all.
In Game 2, he scored 43 points and took 20 rebounds, leading the Lakers to a 96-90 victory at Staples Center and a two-games-to-none series advantage.
Added to Game 1's 44 points and 21 rebounds, O'Neal became the first player in league history with consecutive playoff games of at least 40 points and 20 rebounds. The only other player to accomplish that in the same series was Wilt Chamberlain, who did it three times, most recently in 1962.
King centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard answered Shaq's game with a combined six points and six rebounds.
After being overrun by O'Neal in Game 1, the Kings did increase their presence around O'Neal. For their efforts, they improved by one point and one rebound. As a result, the Lakers head for Sacramento for Game 3 with a healthy, intense O'Neal, who made 18 of 26 field-goal attempts and seven of 13 free-throw tries.
Kobe Bryant scored 27 points and had nine rebounds, so the Laker attack was again two-pronged. It worked. The Laker reserves were outscored, 32-1, and still the Kings needed a desperate, 34-point fourth-quarter to come close.
The Kings had more end-to-end scoring, but could not match O'Neal.
"Shaq was a handful again. We tried to come at him, but we just let him catch it so deep. He's getting the ball and he's gone before we can get to him. I guess somehow before Friday we are going to have to find a way to counteract that better."
Bryant Steps Into Spotlight
Game 3: May 11
Lakers 103, Sacramento 81
This is what awaits whoever has next: Shaquille O'Neal in the post or Kobe Bryant on the wing, whatever, because it no longer seems to matter to them.
So, the resolve of the Lakers grew deeper in Game 3, into the psyches of the deadened Sacramento Kings, into the basketball soul of a team and a town that had their doubts going in anyway.
Bryant scored 36 points and the Lakers won, 103-81, at Arco Arena. They have won the first three games of the best-of-seven series, 14 in a row overall, and are a victory from the Western Conference finals.
The team that convinced itself it could handle the Lakers at home, where the cowbells clatter, sagged again, and apparently will be eliminated from the playoffs for the second consecutive year by the hated Lakers, who haven't lost as many as three consecutive games in the two-year Phil Jackson era.
Bryant's point total was a career playoff high. He scored 26 in the second half, making his final seven shots after missing 10 in a row.
After watching O'Neal carry the offense in the first two games of the series, Bryant saw O'Neal drowning in King defenders and took the offense to the perimeter.
The Lakers, who sagged somewhat in the middle two quarters after taking a 10-point lead after one, had 38 points in the fourth quarter.
After scoring 87 points in the first two games of the series, O'Neal was one of the other guys. He took only two shots in the first half, 13 for the game, and scored 21 points. He missed nine of 14 free throws.
"This was the type of basketball that we need to play to be successful and defend our title. Shaquille was not on his best performance and Kobe picked up the slack, and other guys on this basketball team stepped up and made big shots for us."
Another Sweeping Statement
Game 4: May 13
Lakers 119, Sacramento 113
Kobe Bryant, 22, clapped his hands, eased his head backward and sighed. He looked to his left, at Phil Jackson, and smiled.
A second-and-a-half remained in a series that belonged first to Shaquille O'Neal and then to Bryant, who in Game 4 scored 48 points and took 16 rebounds and stepped again toward whatever it is he's so desperately playing to become.
At the conclusion of a trying weekend that included a round-trip flight to Los Angeles to be at his ailing wife's bedside, Bryant played every bit of 48 minutes and shoved the Lakers into the Western Conference finals. They defeated the Sacramento Kings, 119-113, at Arco Arena, which bade farewell to Chris Webber and to a season that appeared to promise more than a second-round sweep at the hands of Bryant, O'Neal and the Super Friends.
The Lakers have won 15 consecutive games, the last seven in the playoffs. Rarely have they grinded as they did to eliminate the Kings, however. O'Neal, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds, fouled out with 3:09 remaining. Rick Fox, whose defense on Peja Stojakovic changed the flow of the Sacramento offense, fouled out with 27 seconds remaining.
And so at the end of a 39-point Laker fourth quarter, at the end of a series in which he averaged 35 points and a stretch in which he and O'Neal have never played better together, Bryant looked to Jackson and just smiled. He had played himself ragged, gathering nine offensive rebounds. His points were a career playoff high, his total rebounds a career high. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and 28 in the second half and then hugged every one of his teammates when Arco went quiet for the summer.
The Lakers made 12 of 18 field-goal attempts in the final quarter. Robert Horry scored eight points in the quarter, including three of four free throws down the stretch. Brian Shaw made two of three shots, including a late three-pointer.
Mostly, though, it was Bryant.
"His maturity in this series I think really showed. His ability to not only generate scoring for us but also to have the kind of assuredness and poise that bled into the other players as they fed off his energy."
Laker coach, on Kobe Bryant