LOS ANGELES - An invisible smog had shrouded Staples Center yesterday late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter for the Los Angeles Lakers during Game 7 of the NBA's Western Conference finals. Facing a 15-point deficit to the Portland Trail Blazers and the dismal prospect their season ending, the Lakers looked lost.
O'Neal, the league's Most Valuable Player, started and finished what turned out to be a startling run that erased the deficit, not to mention the Trail Blazers. Bryant, inconsistent at times and impatient at others, proved the perfect complement to O'Neal. The run ended with a lob pass from Bryant to O'Neal for a thunderous, one-handed dunk.
They proved to be the exclamation points on an89-84 victory for the Lakers, who survived the embarrassment of nearly losing their third straight game at home. They instead will move on to the NBA Finals, where they will meet the Indiana Pacers beginning here Wednesday. It marks the Lakers first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1991.
"That was a daunting uphill battle," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, looking to add his seventh championship ring as a NBA coach to the six he won while with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. "But we had it in us. It was a great win for our fans and for this team."
Bryant finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. O'Neal, after a slow start, scored 18 to go along with nine rebounds. Rasheed Wallace led the Trail Blazers with30 points, but most of them came as Portland was building its big lead. Like the rest of his teammates, Wallace couldn't hit a shot when the game was on the line.
"I'm excited," said Bryant. "I'm extremely excited to play for the ring. Going to the big dance is something I've dreamed about for all of my 21 years."
It turned out to the a nightmarish fourth quarter for the Trail Blazers. They missed 13 straight shots they watched their lead - and the chance for their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1992 - go awry. It was a remarkable turnaround, since Portland had hit nine straight shots in the third quarter to seemingly silence the Lakers.
"We did a lot of things right for most of the night until we got to the fourth quarter, we just didn't make shots," said Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy. "We got good looks, we just didn't make them."
After falling behind by as many as 15 points twice in the fourth quarter, the second time at 75-60 with a little over 10 minutes left, the Lakers whittled at their deficit. They cut it 13 on a rebound follow by O'Neal, to 10 on a three-point shot by reserve guard Brian Shaw and to eight as Bryant and O'Neal each made one of two free throws.
The Trail Blazers went frigid. A three-point shot by reserve forward Robert Horry inched the Lakers to within 75-70 with a little under seven minutes left.
Portland kept missing, one worse than the next. The Lakers tied the score at 75 on a three-point shot by Shaw with 4:02 to play. After Wallace missed again - the 13th straight by the Trail Blazers - the Lakers called timeout. Bryant missed in the lane and Wallace finally ended the 7 1/2 minute drought with a finger roll in the lane.
But the Lakers took the lead as O'Neal banked in a short turnaround with 2:11 left. O'Neal was then called for goaltending on a shot by Wallace, tying the score at 79. Two free throws by Bryant gave the Lakers the lead at 81-79 with 1:39 left.
O'Neal, rendered ineffective most of the game by Portland's double- and triple-teaming defense, scored nine points in the fourth quarter, punctuating the rally with a thundering dunk on a lob pass from Bryant that put Los Angeles ahead 85-79 with 40 seconds to play.
The Trail Blazers, who had beaten the Lakers twice in Los Angeles in the playoffs, were trying to become the seventh team to come back from being down 3-1 to win a series and the first to do it in the conference finals. Most of the evening, they looked as if they would.
Wallace stepped outside to nail a three-pointer for a 35-25 lead with 6:27 left in the first half. There was a feeling of desperation when O'Neal, who had already picked up two early fouls, was called for his third as he wheeled in the lane and knocked over Arvydas Sabonis with 6:18 remaining in the half.
But it only served to wake up the Lakers - and O'Neal.
On his team's next possessions, O'Neal hit short jumpers. And, after a missed 20-footer by Arvydas Sabonis, Glen Rice hit a three to cut Portland's lead to 35-32.
But after a Blazers' timeout, Bryant reverted to the one-on-one game that got him and his team in trouble in Game 6. He drove in the lane and lost the ball in traffic, and the Trail Blazers built their lead back to seven.
After trailing by as many as 10 points twice during the first half and 42-39 at halftime, the Lakers took their first lead since early in the game on a three-point play by Rice with 6:22 left in the third quarter. It started a stretch when the lead changed hands on four straight possessions.
After Rice gave the lead back to the Lakers at 51-50, Steve Smith scored seven straight points in a 9-0 run.
In a later sequence, Smith hit a three to push Portland's lead to 66-52, and after another missed jumper by Horry, Wallace dunked again to stretch the lead to 15.
The Lakers showed no signs of mounting that big finish early in the fourth quarter. Wells made two free throws with 10:28 to play to give Portland a 75-60 lead.
But O'Neal's basket started the big run, then Shaw hit a three and the biggest 10 1/2 minutes of the Lakers' season had begun.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Indiana vs. L.A. Lakers
Wednesday: at L.A., 9 p.m.
Friday: at L.A., 9 p.m.
June 11: at Indiana, 7:30 p.m.
June 14: at Indiana, 9 p.m.
June 16: at Indiana, 9 p.m.*
June 19: at L.A., 9 p.m.*
June 21: at L.A., 9 p.m.*
TV: Chs. 11, 4