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Horry Is Even Money

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the buzzer, the last of a frantic afternoon, the jump shot that left Robert Horry’s hand with six-tenths of a second remaining, the shot that spellbound an arena and a series and two cities, fell.

It fell, and a budding NBA dynasty still had hope, and the Western Conference finals still had purpose, and the Lakers let go of their fears on a taut, rigorous Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.

Horry gathered a loose ball 25 feet and straight on from the basket and swished a three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 100-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings, who only then lost the last of a 24-point lead. The series is tied at two games apiece, with Game 5 on Tuesday night in Sacramento.

After a week of creating the improbable, after beating the Lakers in nearly every manner, the Kings made one critical error: They left the ball in Horry’s grasp, with the game nearly over, when one shot could change the course of the series.

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Less than a second from needing only one victory to eliminate the twice-defending champion Lakers, and leading, 99-97, the Kings watched Kobe Bryant miss a short runner with five seconds left, and Shaquille O’Neal miss a layup with three seconds left. Vlade Divac reflexively knocked the ball away from the rim, up the middle of the lane, one bounce to Horry, who took it with 1.5 seconds remaining.

“I thought the time was going to run out,” Divac said.

Horry stepped left, leaped, and let go, as Chris Webber floated past, his right hand inches beneath the ball. The buzzer sounded and, as a series held its breath, as Bryant held his fists to his shoulders and Rick Fox laid his head back to watch the ball pass over him, the shot fell, exactly perfect.

“Oh,” Horry said, “I knew it.”

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He knew, because of Philadelphia last year. Because of Portland last month. Because of all the other shots like it that have fallen for him, in all the funny little moments that have widened his eyes and slowed his heart and drawn the basketball to his hands.

“He has a steel kind of will,” Laker Coach Phil Jackson said of Horry, whose shot gave the Lakers their first lead since 2-0, and only their second since the second quarter ... of Game 2.

The Lakers trailed by 20 after one quarter and by 24 in the second before they pushed back, before Bryant clung to Mike Bibby. After scoring 65 points in the first half, the Kings scored 34 in the second, and the Lakers found a semblance of a shooting touch, and something of a defensive conscience.

Horry scored 16 points in the second half, 11 of them in the fourth quarter. O’Neal scored 27 points, including two free throws with 26.9 seconds left, and took 18 rebounds. And Bryant, whose exhaustion required another liter of intravenous fluids after the game, scored 25 points. But after their final shots were off, it was Horry who carried them all back to Sacramento with a feeling of something other than desperation.

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“That’s lucky shot, that’s all,” Divac said. “You don’t need skill in that situation. You throw it, it goes in, it goes in.”

Typically he is subdued, but Horry was nearly aghast that Divac would suggest such a thing.

“If you go back and look at the shot, a luck shot is one of those guys who has no form,” Horry said. “If you look at the shot, it was straight form. He shouldn’t have tipped it out there. It wasn’t a luck shot. I have been doing that for all my career. He should know. He should read the paper or something.”

And Horry laughed. He was taken by what he had done and how it had changed things.

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A few minutes after his shot remade the series, the emotionally wrecked crowd chanted his last name, and Horry waved back. In the pandemonium, public address announcer Lawrence Tanter was moved to repeat something he had heard before, seven years ago, something Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said from a championship podium.

Just as Tomjanovich had held the trophy aloft and bellowed it, Tanter engaged his microphone and said, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion!” Horry was on that team, and so it fit, and people cheered him again. Tanter had never said it before, and it had been a long time since Horry had heard it.

“He saved us today,” O’Neal said. The season was not yet doomed, not quite, but the Lakers played on the brink of that.

It had become hard. So hard, again.

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They had become a team disjointed, on offense and defense. They missed the simplest jump shots and then failed to defend the same.

Jackson’s cool demeanor often was gone, replaced by pointed shouts to play defense, to find the offensive rhythm within them, and scowls.

The Kings have played four games against the Lakers, none of them with Peja Stojakovic, their second-leading scorer, and have never looked inferior.

Into that stepped Horry, in time to save them, from themselves. In time to do something dynamic, when nothing else would be enough.

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Asked early what it would have been like had the Lakers lost, O’Neal said, “I don’t believe in ‘if.’ If my father didn’t meet my mother, and go on a date, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t believe in ‘if,’ but we just wanted to chop it down, just keep fighting and fighting.”

Which, then, led him to Horry’s shot.

“It was a great day,” O’Neal said. “It was a blessed day for us. Thank God for Robert. Thank God his father met his mother too.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOXES)

Deciding Moments

Last-second shots that have won games for the Lakers during these playoffs:

April 28: Lakers 92, Portland 91--Robert Horry’s three-point basket from the corner with 2.1 seconds left gives the Lakers a 3-0 sweep of the first-round series.

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May 12: Lakers 87, San Antonio 85--Kobe Bryant scores on a rebound and put-back with 5.1 seconds left to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.

May 26: Lakers 100, Sacramento 99--After Kobe and Shaq miss shots, Horry gets the ball at the top of the arc and makes a three-pointer as the buzzer sounds to even the Western Conference finals, 2-2.

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*--* Comeback Time One day after the Boston Celtics pulled off the biggest comeback from a deficit at the start of the fourth quarter (21 points) in NBA playoff history, the Lakers came back from the largest deficit after the first quarter. Biggest comebacks from first-quarter deficits in the playoffs: Deficit Winner and Opponent Year 20 LAKERS vs. Sacramento 2002 20 LAKERS* at Seattle 1989 18 San Francisco* at St. Louis 1967 18 *Indiana at New York 1998 *went on to win series

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