Work in Sports
PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Shaquille O'Neal cast an eclipse in the Valley of the Sun and helped put the Phoenix Suns on the brink of complete darkness.
O'Neal caused havoc in the paint, scoring 37 points and grabbing 17 rebounds as the Los Angeles Lakers took a three games to none lead in their Western Conference series with a hard-fought 105-99 victory.
"We haven't played well at all," said O'Neal, the best player on the league's best team. "We made a lot of silly mistakes. But we're not the type of team that makes a lot of mistakes for a long period of time."
The NBA's Most Valuable Player and scoring champion, O'Neal gave the Lakers their first lead of the fourth quarter with a nifty tip-in over Phoenix center Luc Longley, making it 92-91 with 4:16 left.
"Shaq hit some incredible shots," Suns rookie coach Scott Skiles said. "I felt like Luc did a good job on him. He was there banging around with him and forcing him to catch the ball out of the paint."
O'Neal also helped put his team ahead for good, setting up Kobe Bryant's acrobatic layup with 2:34 to play for a 96-95 edge and blocking Longley's baseline drive on the ensuing possession.
He finished 14-of-21 from the field, hitting 10 of his final 12 field-goal attempts, and 9-of-15 from the free-throw line for his fourth straight game with at least 30 points.
"Defensively we're bumping, and I thought I pushed him up," said Longley, who won three NBA titles with Lakers coach Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls. "But it's a funny thing. You think you have him and all of a sudden he does something and he's gone. He really is an incredible player."
Bryant added 25 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, on 8-of-20 shooting for the Lakers, who followed a last-second home victory with their first road win since an April 4 triumph over Golden State.
"We can't take them for granted," Bryant said. "We know that they should have won Game Two, and they could have won tonight.
"I was just waiting for the fourth quarter. When you struggle like that, there is something about the fourth quarter. And there's something about the crowd on the road that gets your team going, and it clicks."
Los Angeles has won eight straight meetings with Phoenix, dating to a 106-101 loss on March 24 of last season.
Penny Hardaway scored 31 points and Jason Kidd handed out 12 assists for the Suns, who have not been swept in a best-of-seven series since the 1989 conference finals against the Lakers. No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit.
"I'm going to come to work tomorrow. The guys have to come back to work tomorrow," Skiles said. "We know that nobody has come back from a 3-0 deficit. But it's got to happen some time. And that's the attitude we have to take."
Phoenix looked good early, using a 15-1 run to grab a 19-7 lead and taking a 28-18 advantage into the second quarter behind a combined 15 points from Hardaway and Cliff Robinson. It matched Los Angeles' lowest point total in a quarter this postseason.
The Lakers opened the second quarter with a 13-3 run, without a point from O'Neal, who finished the quarter with nine and the half with 16 as his team took a 52-50 edge into the lockerroom.
"I think we had great energy to start the game," Skiles said.
"But we got caught up in the excitement of the game and we had a little meltdown."
Robinson scored seven of his 23 points during a 9-0 run in the third, capping it with a 3-pointer for a 61-54 lead with 8:10 left in the period. Phoenix's lead was 72-65 with 3:13 to go in the quarter after Hardaway sank a pair of free throws.
But the Lakers ensured a tight fourth quarter with a 7-0 run as Bryant sank a free throw and jumper, O'Neal a dunk and Robert Horry a pair of free throws for a 72-72 deadlock. The Suns took a 76-75 edge into the fourth.
"They managed to stay in the game in the first half," Hardaway said. "In the second half they wouldn't go down."
Phoenix led most of the fourth quarter, scoring on six consecutive possessions at one point. But so did the Lakers, with O'Neal and Bryant keeping them in the game.
Around nine combined points from Hardaway and Rogers, O'Neal hit a 10-foot hook and layup underneath the basket, and Bryant buried a long jumper and acrobatic three-point play over Hardaway for the first tie of the quarter, 87-87 with 5:58 left.
"I think we got a couple of bounces here and there and a couple of good shots," Bryant said. "Other than that, they were right with us."
Rogers and Hardaway sandwiched a pair of free throws by Horry with a driving layup and reverse. But Rogers' foul on Horry with 5:37 to play put the Lakers in the bonus the rest of the way.
Horry went 1-of-2 from the line with 4:45 to go as Los Angeles got within 91-90, and Hardaway missed a rushed jumper on Phoenix's next possession.
O'Neal then tipped in a miss over Longley for a 92-91 edge before Robinson missed a 3-pointer. A spinning banker by Bryant with 3:43 to play gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead, but a jumper by Longley cut Phoenix's deficit to a point.
O'Neal then had one his rare misses before Kidd set up rookie Shawn Marion for a baseline jumper and a 95-94 Suns edge with 2:50 left. It was their last lead of the game.
Bryant set up a dunk by O'Neal with 2:34 left, and O'Neal knocked a drive by Longley out of play with one second left on the shot clock. Longley accepted the inbounds and passed before the shot clock expired.
"I think overall we had a good game, but we had that meltdown toward the end," Skiles said. "We lost our composure and did some uncharachteristic things that hurt us a little bit."
The teams exchanged empty possessions before the Lakers took over at the foul line. Bryant and Rice sank two each around a pair by Hardaway before the Suns guard missed a 3-pointer that would have tied it at 100-100.
Instead, Brian Shaw was fouled and sank two free throws for a 102-97 lead and O'Neal, Bryant and Glen Rice each went 1-of-2 from the line in the final 26 seconds.
"There are a lot of touch fouls called out there," Hardaway said. "I'd like to see how we play when the calls are even.
They're the best team in the league and they're going to get those calls."
"They were just real active, taking it to the middle," O'Neal said. "They were reaching all day and we just got some calls.
We went to the line and we shot it pretty well from there."
The Lakers went just 7-of-13 from the line in the fourth quarter but finished 35-of-51, making one more than Phoenix attempted (25-of-34). Horry went 7-of-8 from the line and scored 15 points in 39 minutes off the bench.
"The free throws were the story that won the ballgame," Jackson said. "Robert Horry gave us a lift, played a very good game for us off the bench."
Hardaway shot 11-of-15 from the field, 9-of-11 from the line and added eight assists, but Kidd scored just four points on 1-of-9 shooting. Rogers finished with 15 points and Longley 12.
"We came out aggressive and had a big lead on them," Hardaway said. "We just didn't finish them off. They know how to win."