SACRAMENTO, California (Ticker) -- The Kings are dead. Long live the kings.
Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers again are headed to the NBA Finals, where they will be overwhelming favorites to win their third straight title against the upstart New Jersey Nets. The series begins Wednesday in Los Angeles.
"This is a great feeling, because we were able to fight back," Bryant said. "The Kings were playing better basketball than us and we were able to fight back and that makes it feel great."
"The Kings were the better team tonight, they deserved to win, but somehow we did," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who won his 23rd straight playoff series.
The Lakers never had been challenged like this. They were a second away from a 3-1 deficit until Robert Horry won Game Four with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Even after winning Game Six, they came here knowing that no Lakers team had ever won a Game Seven on the road.
"They humbled us in a lot of ways," Lakers forward Rick Fox admitted.
"They played us well all season, they played us well during they series, they thought it was their time," O'Neal said. "But it wasn't."
O'Neal and Bryant showed that they have the determination to match their talent. Both played to the point of exhaustion, with O'Neal collecting 35 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 50 minutes and Bryant added 30, 10 and seven assists while sitting just scant seconds in the second quarter.
The superstars got some help, too. Starters Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher -- all part of the Lakers' last two title teams -- each scored in double figures.
The Lakers trailed in the final minute of regulation and with less than two minutes to go in overtime. O'Neal tied it, 108-108, on a baseline jumper with 1:51 left, then added a pair of clutch free throws 27 seconds later that marked the beginning of the end for the Kings.
In the final 90 seconds, Sacramento missed three shots and committed two turnovers as Los Angeles dug in on defense. Meanwhile, Derek Fisher and Bryant each made a pair of free throws, allowing the Lakers finally to relax.
"It shows our character, to fight through adversity," Bryant said. "When we were down, nobody hung their head, that's what impressed me the most."
The first Game Seven overtime in conference finals history had a bitter ending for the Kings, who battled all season to claim the home-court advantage for this situation. They became the first team in 20 years to lose a seventh game of the conference finals on its home floor.
"I can't say enough about how proud I am of this group and the way they approached this series and the games," Kings coach Rick Adelman said. "I guess our time has to come at another time."
Looking back, the Kings will regret their poor shooting from both lines. They made a Shaq-like 16-of-30 free throws and sank just 2-of-20 3-pointers. But those misses did not hurt as much as the missing experience in games like this.
"We were in control of the game the whole game," Kings forward Chris Webber said. "Even when they had a six- or seven-point lead, I just felt like we had a really good game."
"It hurts, it really hurts big," Sacramento guard Mike Bibby said. "(But) we have many more years of this to come. We should have closed it out when we could, but we have many more years of this."
Bibby and Webber again were sensational. Bibby scored 29 points, 14 of them coming in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. Webber was smothered by double-teams but still had 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
"They are they champions and they are the best team until somebody takes that away from them," Webber admitted. "They accomplished what they wanted."
The game featured 16 ties and 19 lead changes. The Lakers took an 81-78 lead with 9:06 left in the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer by Horry and nursed it for more than seven minutes.
Bibby made an 18-footer and two free throws around a basket by O'Neal, then gave the Kings a 94-93 lead with another jumper at the 1:42 mark. Horry drilled another shot from the arc, and foul-plagued Vlade Divac tied it with a follow show with 1:12 left.
"There were a few times when I dished it out, and the shot came back to me," Bibby said. "I had the shots, so I took them."
Divac fouled out knocking over Bryant, who split the free throws with 46 seconds to play. Bibby made a long jumper from the right wing with 38 seconds remaining, but Bryant made two more from the line, and when O'Neal rebounded Peja Stojakovic's airball and was fouled with 10 seconds left, things looked bleak for Sacramento.
But O'Neal, who was 11-of-15 from the line, missed the first before making the second. On the next possession, Bibby was fouled off the ball by Bryant and his free throws tied it, 100-100, with 8.2 seconds to go. O'Neal missed a jumper and Bryant missed a tip before the horn.
"We were like boxers, just trying to stay in it for the win," Webber said. "We just didn't get the win."
Webber opened overtime with a jumper but was overpowered by O'Neal for an inside hoop. Bibby got free for a layup off an inbounds pass, but Fisher tied it again with a pair from the line. Again, Bibby delivered, sticking a jumper for a 106-104 lead with 2:17 left.
After O'Neal's go-ahead free throws, Bibby missed a jumper and O'Neal missed a dunk. But Hedo Turkoglu rushed a pass to Webber into traffic that was broken up and grabbed by the Lakers with 48 seconds to go.
O'Neal missed a jump hook, giving the Kings yet another chance. But Doug Christie capped a terrible game by failing to draw rim on a wide-open 3-pointer, setting up Fisher's free throws with 14 seconds remaining. Bryant added two more after Webber missed a 3-pointer.
Horry had 16 points and 12 rebounds and Fox added 13, 14 and seven assists. Fisher scored 13 points as the Lakers' starters played all but 29 minutes.
Divac had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Bobby Jackson scored 12 points and Turkoglu 10 for the Kings. Christie made 2-of-11 shots and Stojakovic 3-of-12.
The Kings looked like the inexperienced team in the first quarter, missing four free throws and committing silly turnovers and fouls. They fell behind 20-13 before regrouping with eight straight points.
"Missing the free throws in the game really cost us," Adelman said.
Sacramento settled down, getting a boost from the bench play of Jackson. He made a pair of jumpers to trigger a 10-2 burst that gave the Kings a 49-44 lead with 1:39 to go in the second quarter. O'Neal dunked and Bryant hit a 3-pointer to close it to 54-52 at halftime.
Bryant attacked the basket but may have been overaggressive. He scored 18 points -- matching O'Neal's total -- but needed 19 shots.
Webber threw a nifty bounce pass under a leaping O'Neal that led to a layup by Divac, then hit a jumper to cap a 9-0 run that gave Sacramento a 63-54 lead. But Divac left with his fourth foul shortly thereafter, sparking an 11-3 burst that gave LA a 69-68 lead.
Sacramento held a 74-73 edge entering the fourth quarter.