Kobe's rallying points

Times Staff Writer

It seemed unfathomable, practically impossible, that this would end with anything but a loss for the Lakers.

They were down 20 points, at home, against the defending NBA champions, pinwheeling their arms and free-falling toward losing home-court advantage in a frivolous Game 1 effort.

Make that a furious Game 1 comeback.

The Lakers unfurled one for the ages, fighting back with just enough time left to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 89-85, in the opener of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center on Wednesday night.

Numerically, it was the Lakers' biggest comeback of the season, easily surpassing a 17-point deficit in a long-ago November victory over Denver. Historically, it stirred up an image or two of their 2002 rally against Sacramento in the Western finals, the last time they trailed by 20 in a playoff game they ultimately won.

The game started early (an unusual 6 p.m. tipoff), the Lakers finished late, and the purple-and-gold confetti fell again, as it had so many times this playoff season.

Kobe Bryant awoke with the rest of the team, driving the Lakers with a 44-20 push in the final quarter and a half, showing the Spurs that they could play a little defense too.

Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Friday, also at Staples Center.

Bryant finished with 27 points and nine assists, washing away a passive first half in which he had two points and five assists as the Lakers trailed at halftime, 51-43.

In the end, not long after public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter intoned that there were "Nine down and seven to go," the Lakers took turns crediting good luck and good pluck.

From Coach Phil Jackson: "I told the players that [in] a 6 o'clock game, they didn't wake up until normal game time at 7:45 or something. They were fortunate to get a win."

From Bryant: "Western Conference finals, a lot of us haven't been here before. It is big for a young team to come back from 20 against the defending champs."

From forward Luke Walton: "It was crazy."

There was also the opposing viewpoint.

"It hurts like hell," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said after he sat down for postgame interviews. "Any questions?"

It sure looked like the Lakers would be the ones hurting.

Lamar Odom missed seven of his first nine shots. Derek Fisher missed his first six shots and eight of nine overall.

Bryant, who had averaged 33 points in the first two playoff series, had four points midway through the third quarter.

"Four points?" a fan yelled out in the moribund arena. "C'mon, Kobe."

It got worse, quickly. Tim Duncan's hook shot over Pau Gasol gave the Spurs a 65-45 lead with 5:54 left in the third quarter. Lakers fans began booing.

"We were deep in the hole, no doubt about it," Jackson said.

The Spurs couldn't finish filling it with dirt, though.

Bryant made a 20-footer, fed Gasol for a fastbreak layup, drilled a three-pointer, made a pair of free throws, watched Sasha Vujacic's three-pointer and fed Gasol again for a layup to cap a 14-0 run.

"I know I can make that push," he said. "And I knew once I did, I could get the game back under control, get it under 10 where we knew we could be in striking distance."

Strike they did, taking their first lead of the game on free throws by Bryant that broke an 81-81 tie with 2:42 to play.

Duncan (30 points, 18 rebounds) was credited with tipping in his own missed shot to tie the score at 85-85 with 41.7 seconds left, but Bryant made a nine-foot floater in the lane with 23.9 seconds left.

Vujacic then made two free throws with 7.3 seconds left after Manu Ginobili's three-pointer from the corner hit the front of the rim and bounced away.

The game was over, the comeback complete.

"I think it says a lot about the fact that we are growing into the team we need to be," Fisher said. "There are no scripts to games. Winning a championship is not easy. We had to take this game from them. We did that, and hopefully we can move on to Friday night and get another one."

The Spurs could have trotted out a host of excuses -- an emotional Game 7 victory 48 hours earlier against New Orleans, a nightmare of a trip to Los Angeles -- but they didn't.

"It has nothing to do with the fatigue of the last two days," Popovich said.

They'll be rested for Game 2, yet another test for the Lakers.






Kobe Bryant's scoring by quarters in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals:

1ST: 0

2ND: 2

3RD: 11

4TH: 14



GAME 2: Lakers vs. San Antonio

Friday, at Staples Center, 6 p.m. (TNT)

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