Lakers drop Pacers, pick up crown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers are best known for their abundant star power, but they won the NBA championship last night because they finally showed some willpower.

They had tempted fate in two of the playoff series that led up to the best-of-seven NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers, but hunkered down in the final minutes of Game 6 to score an action-packed 116-111 victory at the soldout Staples Center.

League MVP Shaquille O'Neal is a champion at last.

Celebrated coach Phil Jackson is a champion again.

Youthful star Kobe Bryant just might be a champion forever.

The Lakers climbed back from a 12-point, first-half deficit to wear down the Pacers in the fourth quarter, largely on the strength of another dominating performance by O'Neal. He took the game into his own hands at two pivotal junctures and finished with 41 points and 12 rebounds, overpowering the Pacers inside to earn his long-awaited first NBA title and his second MVP trophy of the season.

Then it was bedlam. Bryant jumped into O'Neal's arms. Fans and friends crowded onto the court. Lakers coach Magic Johnson walked across the floor to hug his longtime rival, Pacers coach Larry Bird, who has said that he will not return to coach next season.

'This is for L.A.," said Jackson. 'This is for the Staples Center. what a wonderful way to christen a new millenium."

OK, so the millennium technically starts next year, but this is no time to split hairs, The Lakers won their seventh NBA title and O'Neal became only the third player in NBA history to be named MVP of both the regular season and the postseason.

There will be no dramatic Game 7 like the one that nearly knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs in their Western Conference showdown with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pacers had exploded in Game 5 to score one of the most lopsided victories in NBA Finals history, but that turned out to be a home-cooked supernova. They finally flared out in a hard-fought fourth quarter that may have marked the beginning of a new Lakers dynasty.

Why not? Bryant is just 21 years old. Shaq is signed long-term. Jackson apparently can get it done without Michael Jordan. The Lakers won the NBA title for the first time since Magic Johnson's 1988 team and they undoubtedly will be a heavy favorite to add another next season.

They cleared a huge psychological hurdle last night when Shaq turned the final period into a dunk-a-thon, and their dormant three-point shooters finally reappeared at "Winnin' Time." Apparently, they don't always have to do it the hard way.

O'Neal showed the world why he was a near-unanimous choice to be the league's MVP. He turned the infamous 'Hack-a-Shaq' defensive strategy against the Blazers in the conference finals and saved one of the most impressive performances of his career for the Pacers last night.

Bryant also took charge down the stretch and finished with 26 points. He would sink the free throw that cemented the victory with two seconds left, then walked off the court pointing at his ring finger.

"We worked so hard,'; said Bryant. "It was a hard-fought game, but we finally won a championship. It feels great. Shaq was marvelous all season long and we just pulled it all together."

How close the Lakers came to watching the Finals on television. They jumped out to a two-game lead against the Sacramento Kings in the best-of-five first round, but -- except in their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns -- they had not left themselves a whole lot of slack. They had the Blazers down 3-1 in the conference finals only to find themselves down 18 points with little more than a quarter to go in Game 7.

The Lakers staged a furious rally to survive the series -- which was viewed by many as the true battle of the NBA's two strongest teams -- and swept the first two games against the Pacers in Los Angeles. When they won Game 4 in Indianapolis to move to the threshold of the NBA championship, it looked like they might waltz for a change.

The Pacers, of course, had other ideas, running up an amazing 33-point margin of victory to force the series to return to L.A., then running up a substantial lead in the first half behind a strong performance by Reggie Miller.

Bird knew what it would take for his team to push the Lakers to the limit.

"I think it's obvious that we have to get off to a good start," he said during the pregame coaches news conference. That's what the Pacers had done in their Game 3 and Game 5 victories, but it took them a quarter to establish the three-point basket that been so pivotal to their survival in a best-of-seven series that could have been a lot shorter.

It took a strange twist of fate to get them going, but they opened up their outside game in the second quarter and rushed out to a 12-point lead.

"Momentum is an exacting mistress," Jackson had said cryptically before the game.

He didn't know the half of it.

The play that got the Pacers moving came with six-tenths of a second remaining in the first quarter. The Pacers inbounded the ball to guard Mark Jackson near half-court and he lobbed the ball over the outstretched arms of Bryant, Swish.

The shot gave Indiana the lead and the Pacers padded it with a string of three pointers -- including consecutive threes by veteran reserve Sam Perkins to build the 12-point advantage midway through the second quarter.

It was beginning to look like they would run away again like they did on Friday night, but O'Neal took charge down the stretch to get the Lakers close at the half.

O'Neal had 21 first-half points, 15 in the second quarter. He took the ball inside repeatedly and chiseled away at the Pacers' lead, even as Indiana continued to shoot well from the perimeter.

Momentum can be a cruel mistress, too. Bryant closed out the Lakers first half charge with a three-pointer that cut the Pacers' lead to three and opened the second half with a short jumper to draw the Lakers within one.

Maybe Bryant got a little full of himself at that point, because he misfired badly on the next two trips down the floor and the Pacers regained their composure to pump their lead back up to seven points.

Still, the Pacers had to know that a modest lead wouldn't be enough. The Lakers had fallen behind by 18 points in Game 7 of their Western Conference final against the Blazers, but staged a lightning-quick comeback to advance to this series.

Last night's comeback was not quite so dramatic, but it was just as sweet for a team and a city that had waited a long, long time to get back to the top.

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