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 16-point deficit and the dismal prospect of their season ending a little earlier than expected, the Lakers looked lost against the Portland Trail Blazers.
O'Neal and Bryant dominated the Trail Blazers down the stretch of an 89-84 victory. As a result, the Lakers will be going to where many thought they would since the beginning of the season - the NBA Finals. Los Angeles will make its first appearance in the championship series since 1991, and will face the Indiana Pacers beginning here Wednesday.
"That was a daunting uphill battle," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who, in his first season here, will now try to add a seventh NBA championship ring as a coach to the six he earned while with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. "I'll tell you that I've never seen one quite like that before, or had a team that I thought ran out of gas as much as they had in the third quarter."
Beginning with a banked three-point shot by reserve guard Brian Shaw to end the third quarter, the Lakers went on a 30-8 run to turn a 71-55 deficit into an 85-79 lead. It was punctuated by a lob pass from Bryant to O'Neal, who threw down a thunderous dunk with 40 seconds to go. While the Trail Blazers climbed to within three on a three-point shot by Rasheed Wallace, they got no closer.
O'Neal, the league's Most Valuable Player, finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, and by making eight of 12 free throws took whatever idea Portland coach Mike Dunleavy had of playing 'Hack-A-Shaq' out of his team's mind. But it was Bryant, the 21-year-old wunderkind, who overcame his own inconsistency and impatient to have a game for the ages.
Bryant finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while playing all but one minute on the left ankle he sprained in Game 5 last week. He created havoc for the Portland defenders, in particular Scottie Pippen, who wound up fouling out while trying to stay with Bryant. The Lakers guard also created space for O'Neal to work inside. "Kobe made some big shots, and Shaq made a couple of big shots down the stretch," Jackson said.
Conversely, the Trail Blazers barely made any. Hitting nine straight after Dunleavy went with a big lineup that included Pippen at point guard and high-scoring Bonzi Wells instead of diminutive Damon Stoudamire, Portland kept misfiring throughout the fourth quarter. In all, the Trail Blazers missed 13 straight shots and went without scoring for nearly 7M-= minutes.
"It came down to the fourth quarter, and we just did not make shots," said Dunleavy, whose team's shooting woes and collective fatigue wound up costing the Trail Blazers their first trip to the Finals since 1992. "I thought that our execution was pretty good. We didn't turn the ball over, and we got some pretty good looks. They made excellent shots against our defense."
Said Wallace, who led the Trail Blazers with a game-high 30 points, "We missed some shots down the stretch. Can't do nothing about that, and it's all said and done with now."
What also enabled the Lakers to make their comeback was the contribution they received from their peripheral players. Shaw, who had shown flashes in a Game 5 defeat after barely being used, finished with 11 points in 17 minutes on 4-for-6 shooting. Robert Horry, after struggling with his shot, hit four of seven off the bench to finish with 12 points and seven rebounds. Glen Rice also had 11 points.
"The shots were just falling tonight," said Shaw, who, along with O'Neal, played in the M-51995 NBA Finals with the Orlando Magic, which was swept by the Houston Rockets. "They were doubling down [on O'Neal] and we were open. We were just trying to take what the defense gave us."
What the Trail Blazers gave the Lakers over the course of this 16-day, seven-game saga was all that the team with both the best regular-season record as well as the best home-court record (tied with the Pacers at 36-5) could handle. It looked as if the Lakers would become only the seventh team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead in a playoff series, something no other team in franchise history had done.
The comeback began slowly, with Shaw's three. Still trailing 75-60 early in the fourth quarter, O'Neal's rebound follow of a miss by Bryant started a run of 15 straight points to tie the score on Ron Harper's three with a little over four minutes left. The Trail Blazers briefly recaptured the lead on a finger roll by Wallace, and tied the score at 79 on another shot by Wallace.
But Bryant sandwiched two more baskets around a pair of missed free throws by Wallace, then delivered the knockout blow with the alley-oop to O'Neal. Positioned perfectly behind Portland guard Steve Smith, O'Neal went up high to throw the ball down with his right hand. Bryant knew that O'Neal would get the ball - and the dunk.
"I thought I threw the ball pretty high," Bryant said. "Shaq has the best hands in the league, and I have total confidence in him catching the ball."
The dunk began a celebration that continued long after the game ended. The normally laid-back fans were heard roaring in the stairwells and out in the parking lots. They hope the celebration continues with the team's first NBA championship since 1988, when Los Angeles beat the Detroit Pistons in seven games. It was the team's last seven-game playoff series.
Bryant was 9 years old and living with his parents in Italy where his father, Joe, was finishing out a professional career that had begun in the NBA.
"I am very excited," Kobe Bryant said last night. "We are playing for the whole thing. Going to the big dance. It's something I've been dreaming about for all of my 21 years." The dream nearly became a nightmare for the Lakers yesterday until the fog lifted and the NBA's best team woke up.