Lakers' great escape

Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- Game 7, not necessary.

The Lakers beat back the decibel level, the road-team jinx and, of greatest importance, the Utah Jazz, advancing to the Western Conference finals with a 108-105 Game 6 victory Friday at EnergySolutions Arena.

Kobe Bryant had 34 points and the Lakers won the best-of-seven series, 4-2. They await the winner of a Monday night Game 7 between San Antonio and New Orleans, and will begin the conference finals Wednesday at Staples Center.

It was loud, of course, and Utah was physical, no surprise, but the Lakers turned a balanced effort into another lengthy break between playoff series. All five Lakers starters scored in double figures, as did reserve Sasha Vujacic.

That the Lakers won in Utah would be a league-wide surprise mainly because road teams had been 1-21 this round.

Then came Friday, followed by the end of the Jazz and the continuance of a Lakers season that keeps getting more engrossing.

The Lakers can credit a scintillating first half in which they outscored the Jazz, 62-43, packing a week's worth of highlights into 24 minutes.

Their reward was a return to the West finals for the first time since 2004.

They're also looking at another pause. They had six days between the first and second round, and they'll get some down time while New Orleans and San Antonio worry about their showdown.

The Lakers were 2-2 against the Hornets and the Spurs during the regular season, beating each of them at Staples Center in the final week of the regular season.

"We know probably San Antonio the best of the two teams, having played against them a variety of times," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "But I think either team is a difficult matchup for us. We anticipate a tough series."

Bryant was definitely back, spasms and all.

He made nine of 19 shots, 15 of 17 free throws, and had eight rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes. He had 12 points in the fourth quarter.

"It's a big step for us," he said of advancing to the conference finals. "The important thing is coming on the road and winning in this building. It shows a lot of character on our part."

After the Jazz closed to within seven, Bryant made a three-pointer over Matt Harpring as the shot clock wound down to give the Lakers a 96-86 lead with 4:54 to play. Then he banked in a 22-footer as he was fouled by Harpring, completing a three-point play for a 99-86 lead with 4:21 left.

Utah wouldn't go quietly, making five three-pointers in the final 2:33, including one by Andrei Kirilenko that moved the Jazz to within 105-103 with 16.3 seconds to play.

Derek Fisher missed the second of two free throws and the Jazz had a chance to tie, but Mehmet Okur missed a three-point attempt with 4.8 seconds left and Deron Williams missed a three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left.

"Frank Hamblen, my assistant sitting beside me, was a wreck," Jackson said. "I had confidence we would make the right play at the end of the game. I just felt [Utah] made some incredible shots."

The Lakers appeared to be in a relaxed mood before the game, Jackson's taking a moment to joke with reporters when asked how Bryant looked during the morning shoot-around.

"He had a really white warmup on, his shoes were well-polished, he looked really spiffy," Jackson said.

(Bryant shot around with his teammates Friday morning and felt no discomfort from his lower-back spasms.)

Bryant, who said he felt "normal, 100%," after the game, had 16 points in the first half, Fisher had 13 and Pau Gasol had 11 rebounds as the Lakers blew past the Jazz.

On one play, Lamar Odom dunked over Harpring after a give-and-go with Gasol in the first quarter. On another, Fisher hit Bryant with a no-look flip on a fastbreak midway through the second quarter. Bryant took it from there with a dunk for a 50-33 Lakers lead.

They moved on to the next round, San Antonio or New Orleans the only thing separating them from the NBA Finals.


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