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Laker Victory Is a Thriller

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phil Jackson, who doesn’t ask often and maybe never before April, stood at the end of a perfectly taut basketball game on Sunday night and called it “one of those times we stepped into our shoes as champions.”

The Lakers had pondered the re-manned Dallas Mavericks for more than 47 minutes, ran with them, shot with them, and then had taken one last stride, made one last 25-footer, and were 105-103 winners at Staples Center, by the width of a rim.

Robert Horry’s three-pointer with 45.8 seconds left, and subsequent three-point misses by Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley--the Mavericks’ 39th and 40th three-point attempts--were the difference in a game that seethed with playoff drama.

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Finley’s reached the top of its arc as the buzzer sounded, as the crowd gasped, as owner Mark Cuban leaned, and then front-rimmed the Mavericks’ hope to take a win away from Los Angeles, where they have lost to the Lakers in 23 consecutive games.

Twice-defending champions and beginning to sense that time of year again, the Lakers tightened their rotation, gathered around the men who led it last season--Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Horry--each of whom scored at least 14 points against the Mavericks, and won for the 12th time in 14 games.

So they began a three-week run against polished, playoff-bound teams such as the Mavericks by making three late threes, two by Horry and one by Fisher, and getting three late defensive stops, the last when Finley missed an open, pull-up three-point try off a Steve Nash pass. The same teams play again on Tuesday night, in Dallas.

“I really thought that last shot was going in,” Maverick Coach Don Nelson said.

“It was in rhythm, in the open court and it would have been a fitting ending.”

Instead, Horry, who scored 19 points and took eight rebounds and could be in the starting lineup for good--Jackson is mulling that, even with Samaki Walker’s healthy return--clenched his fist, and so did more than a few of his teammates. They smiled and grabbed each other, emboldened by a win when the Mavericks had felt so capable they set a Laker opponent record for three-pointers (15) and tied the record for attempts.

“On the floor at that point, five guys had rings,” Fox said. “Some more than two, you know? It was about putting the guys out there who’ve been executing this offense the last few years.”

O'Neal had 28 points and nine rebounds. Perhaps exhausted by 42 minutes of screen-and-roll defense, he slipped out of the building without addressing any of it. Bryant scored 14 points, but had 11 assists and nine rebounds, later saying, “You could kind of feel it once the game started, one of those triple-double nights. It was fun to play in a game like that.”

Finley scored 21 points and Nash and Nick Van Exel each scored 20.

But, after making on 10 of 19 three-point attempts in the first half, the Mavericks perished on the same sword in the second, when they missed 16 of 21.

Even then, growing colder by the possession, the Mavericks forced three ties and six lead changes in the fourth quarter alone.

“We beat them at their game tonight,” Fox said. “That was not the game plan.”

Neither, apparently, was it the Mavericks’, at least not according to their new guard, recently paroled from Denver. “We shot way too many three-pointers,” Van Exel said. “Eventually, you’re going to have to take the ball to the basket. Teams don’t give you three-pointers; they welcome your three-pointers. There’s no way you can win a championship shooting three-pointers.”

Jacked by the meeting of two of the three 46-game winners in the NBA, of the leaders of the Pacific and Midwest divisions, the folks at Staples Center cried for defense, and chanted for Horry, and stood and screamed when Bryant went over his shoulder to feed O'Neal for a third-quarter dunk.

The crowd was as stirred as a Laker crowd can be before May, and so it swooned for Horry’s eclectic game and Bryant’s unselfishness and O'Neal’s thunder, and it cringed at the darting and shooting backcourt of Nash and Van Exel, at the screen-and-rolls that forced O'Neal to be nimble and smart.


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