Work in Sports
LOS ANGELES (Ticker) -- On the edge of an inexplicable collapse, the Los Angeles Lakers showed they are worthy of the NBA Finals.
Shaquille O'Neal finally came alive and the Lakers rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to fight off the Portland Trail Blazers, 89-84, in a dramatic Game Seven of the Western Conference finals.
The Lakers reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991, but what was expected to be a postseason parade nearly became a funeral procession. Los Angeles blew a 3-1 series lead and had just enough to avoid its first Game Seven loss in 16 years.
"That was a very interesting game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I have 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."
Instead, it was the Trail Blazers who collapsed. Just minutes away from their first trip to the Finals since 1992, they missed 13 straight shots in the fourth quarter and lost their grasp on a game they had controlled throughout.
"We lost this game in one quarter," said Blazers forward Scottie Pippen, who all series traded words with former coach Phil Jackson and shoves with just about every Lakers player. "It's tough to swallow right now."
In all, it was a fantastic finish to an epic series between the league's top teams.
"This is a rivalry that's gonna last a long time, probably the rest of my career," O'Neal said.
"It was such a back-and-forth series and either team could have went on," Lakers forward Rick Fox said. "There were a lot of what looked like personal wars and we just laid it out there."
The NBA Finals could be anticlimactic. The Lakers will be heavy favorites against the Indiana Pacers, who are in the Finals for the first time in their history. Game One is Wednesday at Los Angeles.
"We have a little bit of experience as individuals but not as a team and we have to build on what we did today to be better," Jackson said.
O'Neal, the NBA Most Valuable Player, was on the way to one of his worst games as a pro. Hounded by double-teams, he had just nine points and five rebounds entering the fourth quarter and was shut out in both categories in the third period, when the Blazers opened a 16-point lead.
"It was hard to get shots," said O'Neal, who was just 5-of-9 from the field.
But the big man came alive in the final period with nine points and got some help from Kobe Bryant, who shook off a sore foot to collect 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Bryant also scored nine points in the fourth quarter.
"We brought a lot of heart," Bryant said. "We didn't want to lose. We took it as a personal challenge."
However, the Lakers may not have won without the contributions of reserve guard Brian Shaw. O'Neal's former teammate with the Orlando Magic scored 11 points and made three 3-pointers to fuel the comeback.
"It takes a lot of character," Shaw said. "This shows what this team is made of."
Los Angeles won its fourth straight Game Seven since a loss to Boston in the 1984 NBA Finals and avoided its first three-game losing streak of the season. Portland fell to 1-1 all-time in Game Sevens and failed to become the seventh team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series.
Steve Smith, who scored 18 points, opened the fourth quarter by taking Bryant from the backcourt to the baseline for a runner that made it 73-58. But that was the last basket for Portland for nearly nine minutes.
"I know that we sort of made cowards of ourselves in the fourth quarter," Pippen said.
The comeback began after two free throws by Bonzi Wells made it 75-60 with 10:28 remaining. O'Neal started it with his first basket of the second half and later added a free throw. Shaw made a 3-pointer and Bryant and O'Neal made foul shots to get the deficit down to single digits.
Robert Horry made a 3-pointer and Bryant hit a jumper before Shaw tied it at 75-75 with another 3-pointer with four minutes left. During the run, the Blazers committed just two turnovers and had plenty of open shots.
"We had looks. We had opportunities that we would have taken our chances on," Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said. "They just didn't come up right for us."
Rasheed Wallace, who scored 30 points, ended the drought with a lane jumper with 2:58 left but that was Portland's last lead.
O'Neal made two free throws as Arvydas Sabonis fouled out, then banked in a hook with 2:12 to go.
Wallace scored inside to tie it, but Bryant gave the Lakers the lead for good at 81-79 with two free throws with 1:34 remaining and Wallace missed two at the other end. Bryant took advantage by pulling up for a foul-line jumper over Pippen and an 83-79 lead with 1:08 left.
After Pippen missed a 3-pointer, Bryant threw an alley-oop pass to O'Neal, who hammered it home to send the Staples Center crowd into delirium with 41 seconds remaining.
"Just throw it up and I'll get it," O'Neal said.
Portland had one last gasp after Wallace made a 3-pointer and Ron Harper split a pair of free throws with 32 seconds to go.
Smith drove and was body-blocked to the floor by O'Neal, but no foul was called and the Lakers held on despite making just 3-of-8 foul shots in the final 25 seconds.
Horry scored 12 points and Glen Rice added 11 for the Lakers, who shot 49 percent (31-of-63) from the field and held a 41-33 edge on the boards. Los Angeles made just 20-of-37 free throws.
Pippen had 12 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out for the Blazers, who shot 42 percent (32-of-77) and attempted just 16 foul shots, making 12.
Wallace and Smith each scored 10 points in the third quarter.
Wallace began a 17-2 run with two free throws and Smith scored seven straight points before a jumper by Wallace widened the lead to 59-51 with 3:25 left.
Horry hit a jumper, but Wells drove for a layup, Wallace dunked off a steal by Pippen, Smith hit his second 3-pointer of the run and Wallace dunked again for a 68-53 lead with 1:18 remaining.
Pippen's 3-pointer with 20 seconds to play gave Portland its largest lead at 71-55 but Shaw offered a preview of what was to come when he banked in a 3-pointer to close the quarter.
"I had to toss it up there a little higher and someone guided it in," Shaw said.
"That was a big momentum play," Dunleavy said.
The Lakers began tentative as the Blazers double-teamed O'Neal and forced him to pass. Pippen disproved the chants of "Scottie (Stinks)" with nine points in the first quarter, matching his total from Game Six.
Damon Stoudamire, Pippen and Smith made 3-pointers in a 13-0 run that gave Portland a 19-9 lead with 4:29 remaining. O'Neal drew two fouls each on Sabonis and Brian Grant but did not have a basket in the period, which ended with the Lakers trailing, 23-16.
Bryant fired an airball as Los Angeles continued to struggle in the second quarter. A 3-pointer by Wallace rebuilt the lead to 35-25 with 6:33 to go and things looked really good for Portland when O'Neal picked up his third foul 15 seconds later.
But O'Neal finally broke through with baskets on the ensuing two possessions and a 3-pointer by Rice cut the deficit to three points. A dunk by Bryant closed the half and kept the Lakers within 42-39.
O'Neal went flying into the expensive seats for a loose ball but that was the extent of his impact in the third quarter. Rice had a three-point play to give the Lakers a 49-48 edge with 6:22 and the teams traded a pair of points before the Blazers began their surge.