Lakers sweep series, 4-0
Game 1: May 19
Lakers 104, San Antonio 90
Not Just Idol Talk from Shaq
"You're my idol," O'Neal said to him. "Hey, you're my idol."
Touched, Bryant grinned and turned back to the cameras. He had scored 45 points and, with a combative defense from himself and his teammates, helped snatch home-court advantage from the San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers defeated the Spurs, 104-90, at the Alamodome in the first game of the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. The victory was their 16th in a row, the last eight in the playoffs, and it settled the only nagging issue left from their tumultuous regular season--the Spurs were assured four home games in these conference finals, one more than the Lakers.
Now the Lakers have home-court advantage. And not only in this series. The West winner will have the home-court edge in the finals.
O'Neal, surrounded often by towering Spurs Tim Duncan (28 points, 14 rebounds) and David Robinson (14 points, two in the second half), scored 28 points, the last two on a dunk that brought his father, Philip Harrison, to his feet in the third row.
The game turned, however, on the impetuous Bryant, who slashed into the lane and made his signature turnarounds and hounded the Spur big men from the top. He made 19 of 35 shots, scored more points than any playoff opponent in Spur history, and earned, finally, O'Neal's respect.
For the record, O'Neal said in the aftermath, no one is better.
"He's playing phenomenal. I don't know what to say. I think he's the best player in the league. By far. When he's playing like that, scoring, getting everybody involved, playing good defense, there's nothing you can say. That's where I've been trying to get him all year. And I now can say that he's the best player."
Laker center, on Kobe Bryant
Jackson Gets Real Technical
Game 2: May 21
Lakers 88, Spurs 81
In a near-empty corridor, beside a bus that would take them all away, a veteran of too many NBA wars to recall them all made a tight fist that was to represent the Lakers.
An hour before, the Lakers had won an impossibly contested basketball game, one that left a teammate bloodied and another with an aching jaw, that left the San Antonio Spurs battered if not quite emotionally spent, but close, and that left the Lakers fairly amazed at what they had just done.
They defeated the Spurs, 88-81, in Game 2 at the Alamodome and so took a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
In the harshest of places, the Lakers beat the Spurs with defense, the Spurs' game. They beat them by sustaining unusual exertion, which has become their signature in a 17-game winning streak, the last nine in the playoffs, and they beat them with Coach Phil Jackson in the locker room, ejected with nearly 16 minutes remaining.
Kobe Bryant scored 28 points, including the knockout three-pointer, and the Lakers overcame deficits of 14 points in the second quarter and 10 in the third quarter to draw within a weekend at home of ending the series in four games, their third consecutive sweep to start their title defense.
Horace Grant unclenched his fist and shook his head. He'd won three championships, the first a decade ago in Chicago, a dynasty ago, and still hadn't seen something like this, 12 players so divided and then so together, all in the same spring.
They agreed this might have ended in unglamorous defeat two months ago, when the hard things would have gone undone. They've changed.
The Lakers outscored the Spurs, 13-5, to end the game, and held them to four-for-15 shooting in the third quarter and three-for-15 shooting in the fourth.
Playing with the resilience of seven weeks of victories, the Lakers' winning streak lived for a 49th day, 17 victories that took them from reasonable doubt to ultimate expectation, to a road sweep of the first two games of the conference finals.
"For us to come out and keep our poise and not get too upset at a few calls that didn't go our way, I mean, oh wow. We figured it was going to be a war. It was."
It Just Seems to Get Easier
Game 3: May 25
Lakers 111, Spurs 72
Pushed by momentum, pulled by their conviction in it, the Lakers were stronger still in Game 3, when Shaquille O'Neal scattered the San Antonio Spurs with dunks, and then the confetti fell and the music played, and everyone danced off to Game 4.
Gathering resolve and composure in an 18-game winning streak that includes their first 10 games of the postseason, the Lakers have become ruthless in the playoffs. They beat the Spurs, 111-72, at Staples Center, and so lead the best-of-seven Western Conference finals, three games to none, shoving the Spurs to the brink of radical, inglorious elimination. The Lakers can clinch their second consecutive berth in the NBA finals with a win in Game 4 at Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant scored 36 points, many spectacularly, and had nine rebounds and eight assists, and O'Neal rose up over the Twin Towers David Robinson and Tim Duncan to score 35 points and take 17 rebounds.
Needing a massive effort and instead being outplayed, the Spurs were outrebounded, 63-35, and scored eight fourth-quarter points.
The Lakers are nearly three full rounds into the postseason and haven't lost, and repeating their championship happens to be running neck and neck with the growing expectation that they win it in exactly 15 games.
For the first time in a long and sometimes arduous season, the Lakers are not being drawn along by just O'Neal or only Bryant, or both. The Lakers' total game found them just in time to save them from themselves, in time to defend their championship with dignity, and in that spirit they have pounded the Spurs.
Robinson, chided between Games 2 and 3 for failing to deliver on offense, scored 24 points, most on mid-range jumpers. But his insistence on finding his game appeared to throw off Duncan, who missed 11 of 14 shots and scored nine points.
"It's become greater than Shaquille. It's become greater than Kobe, greater than any effort by one or two people. I've never seen it before. It's as though we're starting to round into the team we thought we'd be. When it's done, whenever it's done, even in a championship, I think I'll be sad it all came to an end."
Twin Towers Toppled
Game 4: May 27
Lakers 111, Spurs 82
Regular-season underachievers turned playoff juggernauts, the Lakers began their true title defense after Game 4, the moment they walked out of the Western Conference finals and into the NBA Finals, when General Manager Mitch Kupchak turned and handed the trophy to Kobe Bryant. He hoisted it overhead and smiled, then gave it away, almost without thought.
They dispatched the San Antonio Spurs, 111-82, at Staples Center, pushing playoff perfection through a third series, an 11th game, matching the best postseason start in league history. That's Portland in three, Sacramento in four and the Spurs in four, three 50-game winners out without a misstep for the Lakers, who swept the Spurs by an average of 22.3 points a game, the largest differential ever in a conference finals.
Eight weeks to the day since the Lakers' last loss, and before a crowd delirious over them for it, Laker guard Derek Fisher made six of seven three-point shots and led all scorers with a career-high 28 points.
He is the first Laker other than Shaquille O'Neal or Bryant to lead the team in scoring since Dec. 15, and the second to do it all season.
Fisher made 11 of 13 field-goal attempts, including all three threes in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers buried the memory of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Spurs two seasons ago.
"Every time we were expecting a letdown, we actually came back and turned it up more. It felt good because a lot of people expected this to be a long series, a tough series