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Lakers survive, find familiar spot in finals
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Never in the past three years had the Los Angeles Lakers been tested like this.
Extended to overtime in a Game 7 on the road, the two-time defending champions did what they do best -- thrived when the pressure was at its highest.
Flinch? Not a chance.
Shaquille O'Neal and Derek Fisher came through when it mattered most on a night when Kobe Bryant didn't have a field goal in the fourth quarter or overtime, sending the Lakers back to the NBA Finals with a 112-106 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.
"I think it was kind of a gut check," Bryant said. "Last year we kind of swept through the playoffs, and to be tested like this right here, right now, and to respond the way we did, it gives us a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence."
In a game every bit as good as the Western Conference finals series it concluded, the Lakers were the team with more poise at the end.
O'Neal, Fisher and Bryant were a combined 8-for-8 from the foul line in overtime, while Sacramento couldn't put a point on the board in the final two minutes, despite Mike Bibby's heroic effort.
Bad shots, bad passes, bad decisions -- those were about the only things the Kings did well in the final half of an overtime session that went the Lakers' way and gave coach Phil Jackson his 23rd consecutive playoff series victory.
The Lakers will defend their title beginning Wednesday night and were made an early 9-1 favorite against the New Jersey Nets, a team making its first trip to the NBA Finals.
O'Neal finished with 35 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks, while Bryant had a quiet 30 as he scored only four points in the final 17 minutes -- all on free throws.
"We made some mistakes, but we know what it takes to win," O'Neal said. "We took the high percentage shots, stepped up to the line and hit our free throws and played well."
Bryant's final two from the line gave the Lakers a six-point lead with 6.4 seconds left, and the game ended with Webber bobbling an inbounds pass.
Bryant went over and hugged Bibby, O'Neal threw a white towel into the stands and Jackson went over to shake hands with Kings coach Rick Adelman.
Bibby had 29 and Webber 20 for the Kings, who worked all season to gain the homecourt advantage with this very moment in mind.
The Kings were hurt by their foul shooting -- they missed 14 of 30 attempts -- and the inability of anyone other than Bibby to make a big play on offense in the late going.
"I thought they tensed up down the stretch when Bibby was taking all the shots and the others were hesitating," Lakers forward Robert Horry said.
The Lakers are a team that laughs in the face of pressure, and their poise never wavered as they were pushed further than ever before during their three-year run of success. They confidently insisted all along that they liked their chances if it ever came down to a Game 7 at Arco Arena.
That confidence made all the difference.
Webber hit the first shot of overtime, a 20-footer over O'Neal, but even that didn't instill any faith in the fans.
The crowd went into a collective hush every time Webber got his hands in the ball, wondering whether the big-salary player with the reputation for failing at crunch time would get it done.
Webber missed a jumper with 1:38 left and O'Neal hit a pair from the line for a 108-106 lead. After Bibby missed a jumper, O'Neal got the ball in the low post, spun around Webber and -- surprise -- missed a dunk.
Hedo Turkoglu ruined that chance by firing a pass at Webber's feet, but the Kings got another break when O'Neal missed again inside. This time, though, Doug Christie had his foot on the 3-point line as he was long on a jumper.
Fisher made two from the line for a 110-106 lead with 14.6 seconds left, and Webber then missed a 3-pointer. Bryant wrapped it up from the line, pumping his fist in defiant delight.
The victory was the first ever on the road in a Game 7 for the Lakers, including their time in Minneapolis.
"They accomplished what they wanted to do, that's all I'll say about them," said Webber, who like his teammates appeared devastated by the loss. Vlade Divac said the Kings locker room was silent for five minutes after the players left the court.
Horry scored 16 points, and Fisher and Rick Fox had 13 each. O'Neal, Bryant, Fox and Horry each grabbed at least 10 rebounds, and Bryant and Fox each had seven assists.
Webber did an adequate job of defending O'Neal in the fourth, while Christie guarded Bryant so well that the Lakers had trouble even getting the ball into his hands.
Still, the Lakers found a way.
"We kept our composure. That's why championship experience shows through," Bryant said. "Now we have a chance to defend our title. Now it's just time to go after it."
If the Kings gave an early clue that the pressure was getting to them, it came midway through the first quarter after Bryant drove past everybody for a dunk.
Bibby missed a reverse layup, Divac clanged a jumper, Turkoglu and Divac each missed a pair from the line and Bibby missed another jump shot. The Lakers capitalized on the cold spell to take a 20-13 lead on a 3-pointer by Fox -- his only basket of the first half.
Bryant had a dozen points in the second quarter and O'Neal had 11, keeping the Lakers within range as the Kings played from ahead for most of the quarter. The game stayed tight though the third quarter, with Bibby drawing O'Neal's third foul on a reach-in with 2.4 seconds left. He made one of two from the line to give the Kings a 74-73 edge heading into the fourth.
Webber drew a technical foul less than two minutes into the fourth for complaining about a non-call, then missed his next two shots before making a dunk to cut the Kings deficit to 87-86 with 5:13 left.
Divac drew his sixth foul with 46 seconds left while racing Bryant for a loose ball, rolling around in disgust along the baseline upon realizing he had fouled out. Bryant made one of two.
The Kings executed a pick-and-roll perfectly on their next possession, with Bibby nailing an 18-footer for a 98-97 lead. Bryant was fouled inside with 22.3 seconds left and made both.
Sacramento worked the ball to Peja Stojakovic in the left corner, but his 3-point shot was way long and way right -- an airball that brought a collective groan from the crowd.
O'Neal was fouled on the rebound and made one of two, making it 100-98 with 10.4 seconds left. Bryant was incredulous as he was called for holding Bibby two seconds after the Kings inbounded, and Bibby hit both foul shots to tie it at 100.
Los Angeles inbounded with 8.2 seconds left and got the ball to O'Neal 12 feet away. His shot was short, and two tip-in attempts missed to send the game to overtime.
Notes: One of the best quotes of the series came from Bryant, who said he would not be eating in Sacramento prior to Game 7. "All those cows up there and I couldn't get a decent burger?" asked Bryant, who came down with food poisoning after eating a bad burger prior to Game 2. ... Jackson hasn't lost a playoff series since the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1995 against O'Neal and the Orlando Magic.