Kobe has Finals say
The odyssey began on the shores of Honolulu, the Lakers convening for training camp without knowing what awaited them, other than a slew of grim possibilities.
Maybe Kobe Bryant would stay with the Lakers. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe the Lakers would make the playoffs. Maybe they wouldn’t.
But the purple and gold confetti fell again Thursday, this time with particular meaning.
The Lakers became the Western Conference champions, completing an implausible seven-month run with a 100-92 victory Thursday over the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center.
After pushing through the tightest regular-season race in league history, the Lakers finished off the defending NBA champions, outscoring them by 21 points over the final three quarters and winning the West finals, four games to one.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is next Thursday, in either Boston or Detroit. Game 2 in the best-of-seven series will also be a road game for the Lakers, followed by three games scheduled at Staples Center.
A year ago today, Bryant publicly asked to be traded, but on Thursday, he had 39 points on 16-for-30 shooting, driving daggers into the Spurs again and again with 17 fourth-quarter points.
Three years ago, Phil Jackson was rehired to coach the Lakers, calling it a “story of reconciliation, redemption, of reuniting,” a list he could begin checking off with the Lakers’ advance to the championship round for the first time since 2004.
Jerry West, who put together more than his share of Lakers champions, presented the conference trophy to General Manager Mitch Kupchak, a symbolic gesture that was more than just the passing of a silver ball.
It was a reminder of all the franchise had been through over the past year.
And what was still ahead.
“As I told the players, there’s nothing like losing the Finals for a negative feeling after you’ve played as well as you’ve played, not to finish the job up,” Jackson said. “As much as I appreciate the league trying to emphasize the Western Conference trophy, that doesn’t mean too much when the big prize is still out there.”
Not that the Lakers didn’t have fun when the West officially became theirs.
There was excitement in the locker room. Even joy. Players ribbed Sasha Vujacic for drilling a meaningless three-pointer at the buzzer. They soaked in the concept of being four victories away from the franchise’s 15th title.
“We’re a bunch of kids, so we enjoyed it,” Bryant said. “We laughed, joked around, clowned around. . . . We are kind of a goofy bunch.”
Bryant, though, also knew what awaited them in the near future.
“This is the Lakers,” he said. “They’re used to winning Western Conference championships. I don’t think we will go out on the street and see a riot or anything like that. People will be celebrating and be happy about it, but we play for one thing and one thing only, and that’s championships.”
At first, it looked like the Lakers were playing themselves into another trip to San Antonio, for Game 6.
They made only seven of 24 shots (29.2%) in the first quarter and trailed, 28-15. The Spurs led by as many as 17 points in the second quarter before the Lakers cut it to six at halftime, 48-42.
They kept chipping away until Luke Walton’s three-pointer with 9:38 to play gave them the lead for good, 70-68, on the way to their 29th NBA Finals appearance.
“Never a dull moment with these boys,” Jackson said.
Pau Gasol had 12 points and his 19 rebounds were one shy of his career high. Lamar Odom had 13 points and eight rebounds.
But the main story line was Bryant. Was there really any other way?
He had only four points in the first quarter and 13 at halftime. The fourth quarter, however, was all his.
His teardrop shot gave the Lakers an 85-81 lead. He elevated over Tim Duncan for a 15-footer with 2:22 to play. He blew past the entire Spurs defense for a layup and 89-82 lead with 1:47 to play.
Then he made four free throws in a series that hadn’t presented many to him.
In all, he had 10 points in the final 3:32, closing the deal for the Lakers.
“He certainly did,” Jackson said.
The spotlight was again on Bryant, just as it had been in the beginning.
He seemed elated with the way it was working out.
“I think this is a tremendous accomplishment,” he said. “For us to not have as much experience as some of the other teams in the West and still be able to get through the West, I think shows a lot of maturity, a lot of understanding.”
He left with one final thought.
“Now it is time to go on and see if we can’t finish it off.”
NBA FINALS: at Boston or Detroit
Thursday, 6 p.m. PDT, Channel 7
Lakers win best-of-seven Western Conference finals, 4-1