Work in Sports
INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- On a bad ankle, Kobe Bryant ignored the pain, soared toward superstardom and put the Los Angeles Lakers one small step from their first NBA title in 12 years.
Bryant took over in overtime, scoring six of his 28 points in the last two minutes after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out and lifting the Lakers to a 120-118 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game Four of the NBA Finals.
It matched the highest-scoring Finals game since the 1993 triple-overtime epic between Chicago and Phoenix and nearly as exciting. The Lakers were not clear until a potential game-winning 3-pointer by Reggie Miller -- who finally came alive in the late stages -- bounded away as the horn sounded.
"That was a great game," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who is one win away from his seventh NBA championship. "Kobe smelled it at the end of the game, his opportunity when Shaq was out, and lifted us."
"It was like a heavyweight fight but we got the last punch," Lakers forward Glen Rice said.
Bryant missed Game Three with a sprained left ankle suffered in Game Two and returned just in time to thwart the Pacers, who were trying to knot the series but now have very little realistic chance of winning this series.
"There's nothing wrong with that man's ankle," said Pacers forward Sam Perkins, who forced overtime with a clutch 3-pointer. "I keep trying to tell you all that."
"It's adrenaline," said Lakers forward Robert Horry, who went from goat to hero down the stretch. "But he's going to be feeling the effects of it (Thursday)."
No team has erased a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and the Lakers have not lost three straight games all season. Game Five is Wednesday at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"We've got a little bit of a pulse left in the heart," Miller said.
O'Neal fouled out midway through overtime, leaving with 36 points, 21 rebounds and Los Angeles holding a 112-109 lead.
Bryant made sure the Lakers never gave it away, although teammate Rick Fox tried his best.
"When Shaq fouled out, this game became an awful lot more interesting," said the 21-year-old Bryant, who made 14-of-27 shots, almost all of them mid-range jumpers. "I just played relaxed, like I was in my backyard."
"Kobe Bryant took over," said O'Neal, who was his usual dominant self but was not around for the finish. "He's a fabulous player."
Since entering the NBA directly out of high school in 1996, Bryant has been compared -- many times unfairly -- to Michael Jordan. But the likeness tonight was too obvious to ignore. He willed the Lakers to victory, taking control with a series of high-flying moves.
"I broke down through our offense and went to an open-floor game for Kobe with a small lineup," said Jackson, who used to do the same for Jordan in Chicago. "When he's in that kind of a space or groove like that, he just needs some room to operate."
"These are the kind of moments I dream about every day," Bryant said. "Just watching all these players growing up, seeing what they were capable of doing in these type of situations, and during the game when things get thick, you just look up in the crowd, look up at the fans, everybody's waving their towels, it's like a crescendo of cheers, you just lose yourself in the moment. At that time, you don't feel pressure. You're just consumed by the game."
With Los Angeles clinging to a one-point lead, Bryant soared on the right side of the basket and put back Brian Shaw's missed runner for a 120-117 lead with 5.9 seconds to go. It was his eighth point of the overtime, one shy of the Finals record.
The Pacers got a huge break when Fox was called for a dead-ball foul, plowing over Jalen Rose at the top of the circle. Miller made the ensuing free throw to put Indiana within a bucket as Jackson gave the referees a "choke" sign.
"Rick got tied up with Rose and couldn't disentangle himself," Jackson said. "It was a call I think the referee had to make even though it was pretty obvious what happened."
Miller scooted around a pair of screens and popped free on the right wing. Rik Smits raised his arms in triumph but the shot hit the back rim.
"It felt good," Miller said. "I was distracted when Robert Horry was running at me. It was right on target but I had to shoot it higher."
"It was a rushed shot," said Pacers coach Larry Bird, who is one loss from the end of his coaching career. "If we had the three, we were going to take it. If it was a two, we would have took that."
Miller scored 35 points and nearly shot the Pacers to a series-tying win. After missing six in a row early, he scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and six more in overtime.
Horry scored 17 points, including the first two baskets of overtime as he shook off a huge turnover at the end of regulation. That became a trend for the Lakers, who scored on all eight of their extra-session possessions.
"It's disappointing when you turn the ball over because it was the last five seconds of the game," Horry said. "But it's no big deal. You turn it over and then you let it go."
Bryant stepped through a double-team for a jumper to keep the lead at four but Miller drilled his sixth 3-pointer, cutting the deficit to one. O'Neal scored inside and was fouled, but he missed the free throw -- he was 10-of-17 from the line -- and left after bumping Smits to the floor at the other end.
"Kobe, he winked at me, he was like, 'Don't worry about it, I got it,'" O'Neal said.
Smits, who sat the entire fourth quarter, returned with a vengeance in overtime as he worked over John Salley. He threw in hooks on the next two trips but Bryant answered with long jumpers each time to keep the cushion at three points.
"I think Kobe's probably at his best when he's getting into the lane creating," Miller said. "If he's going to settle for those and make those tough shots, you got to live with those."
"There were moments we'd score, they'd come back and score, we'd score, they'd come back and score," Bryant said. "You could get mad because our defense was lacking, but at the same time, it was fun."
Miller sank two free throws and the clock dipped below a minute to go. Rice shot an airball but Shaw followed it in with 46 seconds left. Smits, who scored eight of his series-high 24 points in overtime, made a pair from the line with 28 seconds remaining.
"When they did miss a couple, we didn't get the rebound," Bird said. "They were killers."
The fourth quarter was frenetic. There were 10 lead changes and three ties, the last coming with 35 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Perkins, who scored 10 points on his 39th birthday.
"I saw Shaq in the middle, so I just went out to the (arc) and was able to knock it down," Perkins said.
Horry, whose free throw with 44 seconds to go had given Los Angeles a 104-101 lead, threw away an entry pass with 17 seconds to play. But 5-11 Travis Best fired an airball with O'Neal on him and O'Neal was too hard on a hook at the horn.
Rice scored 11 points for the Lakers, who shot 52 percent (48-of-93) and had 14 offensive rebounds. The Pacers shot 50 percent (42-of-84), made 10-of-19 from the arc and 24-of-28 from the line.
"We shot the ball extremely well tonight," Bird said. "It's very disappointing to lose a game when you shoot that well."
Miller was 0-of-7 in the fourth quarter until tonight, when he made 5-of-6 shots, including all three of his 3-pointers. O'Neal also was huge with 14 points but lost his touch at the line, missing 5-of-7 at one point.
The early portion of the period previewed what was to come when Miller stepped back for a jumper, then put together 3-pointers with Perkins for an 89-84 lead with 7:46 remaining.
O'Neal was flagrantly fouled by Best and made two free throws and a hook around his fifth foul. He got deep for an easy bucket with 5:49 to go to give Los Angeles a 92-91 edge, beginning a stretch of seven straight possessions in which the lead changed or the score was tied.
A 3-pointer by Miller gave Indiana a 98-97 lead with 4:08 left, O'Neal tipped in his own miss and Miller drilled another 3-pointer to give Indiana a 101-99 lead. O'Neal split a pair, then missed two, but the Pacers sputtered and Bryant gave the Lakers the lead with a foul-line jumper with 1:39 remaining.
Miller's only miss of the quarter came on the next possession and one more free throw from O'Neal made it 103-101 with 1:02 left. Rose, who scored 14 points but none in the final 14:10, missed an off-balance shot in the lane before Horry went to the line.
Testing his ankle, Bryant started slowly and so did the Lakers as they dug themselves a 9-2 hole. They trailed 33-23 after one quarter as Miller scored 10 points and Smits eight before departing with his customary early second foul.
"This game wasn't going to be won in the first half," Bryant said. "You just kind of pace it out."
Ignoring foul trouble, Bryant and O'Neal helped the Lakers close to 52-49 at halftime. Los Angeles appeared to be in trouble when Bryant drew his fourth foul just 63 seconds into the third quarter. But he stayed in the game and answered with two jumpers and a drive.
A 3-pointer by Rice with 8:02 left gave the Lakers their first lead at Conseco Fieldhouse at 62-60. Bryant had 10 points in the period, which ended with the Lakers leading, 80-77.