LOS ANGELES &
It was exactly a year ago that Kobe Bryant demanded a trade, ultimately saying he'd prefer playing on Pluto rather than return to the Los Angeles Lakers.
But the Lakers kept him, and all parties are delighted with how things worked out.
Bryant scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied from an early 17-point deficit to beat the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs 100-92 on Thursday night and win the Western Conference finals in five games.
The Lakers get a week off before opening the NBA finals next Thursday night at Boston or Detroit. The Celtics led the Pistons 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals entering Game 6 on Friday night.
"Feels great," Bryant said. "I think it started for us in training camp, when there was a lot of talk swirling around. We were always together, eating together, on the bus, joking around together. We built that unity from the first day and we carried that on throughout the season."
Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal teamed up to lead the Lakers to three straight championships starting in 2000, but O'Neal was traded a month after they lost to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA finals. The Lakers didn't win another playoff series since until last month, and that drought was the genesis of Bryant's anger last spring.
But the improvement of several young players and the acquisition of Pau Gasol from Memphis four months ago made a huge difference.
"I think it is a tremendous accomplishment," Bryant said of winning the conference championship. "I think the West is extremely tough. We're all extremely excited and proud about it. Now, it's time to go on and see if we can't finish it off."
The Lakers are 12-3 in the playoffs, including 8-0 at Staples Center, where they haven't lost in two months. They have won 14 straight home games and 21 of their last 24 postseason games at home.
"We came out here, played our game, and won," said Lamar Odom, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "It's satisfying, but one more step."
Odom will be playing in the NBA finals for the first time.
"I can remember when I was 6 years old, watching the games, watching Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Magic (Johnson)," he said. "To have this opportunity is great."
Gasol had 12 points, a career playoff-high 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots, and backup guards Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar added nine and eight points respectively for the Lakers.
A basket by Odom gave the Lakers an 83-76 lead with 5:40 remaining, but a 3-pointer by Brent Barry and a basket by Tony Parker drew the Spurs within two points. Manu Ginobili missed a 3-pointer that could have given San Antonio the lead before Bryant's jumper with 3:33 to play made it 85-81.
A foul shot by Tim Duncan drew the Spurs within three, but two more baskets by Bryant made it 89-82 with 1:47 to play, and the Spurs weren't closer than five points after that.
Parker scored 23 points and Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists for the Spurs. Michael Finley scored 13 points, Barry and Kurt Thomas added 11 each and Ginobili was held to nine, shooting just 3-for-9.
The Lakers' youth, quickness and athleticism determined this series. The turning point occurred in Game 1, when the Spurs took a 20-point third-quarter lead before the Lakers outscored them 44-20 for an 89-85 victory.
"Tough losses &
Game 1, Game 4 and this one," Parker said. "You just have to give credit to the Lakers. Obviously, everybody is disappointed."
Former Lakers star and executive Jerry West presented the Lakers the conference championship trophy on the court following the game. that time, the players were all wearing T-shirts and caps denoting their championship status.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson has won nine championships, tied for the NBA record with former Boston coach Red Auerbach.
"I like not to get involved personally in this and think of this as a team effort," he said regarding what playing in the NBA finals means to him. "As much as I appreciate the league trying to emphasize the Western Conference trophy, that doesn't mean too much when that big prize is still out there."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pointed to his team's offense &
and the Lakers' defense &
as the keys to the series.
"I thought we did a fine job, we just didn't muster the offense, for a variety of reasons," he said. "The fact that we didn't come through offensively is a disappointment, but part of that is a credit to the Lakers. The better team won."
The Lakers will be playing in the finals for the 23rd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1961 and the 29th time overall. They have won 14 championships &
nine in Los Angeles and five in Minneapolis.
The Lakers and the Celtics have met 10 times in the finals, with Boston winning the first eight matchups and Los Angeles the last two &
in 1985 and 1987. That's the last time the Celtics advanced to the championship round.
The Lakers and Pistons have met three times in the finals, with Detroit winning twice.
San Antonio's elimination might signal the end of its era of dominance. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs won championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, but with a rotation made up solely of 30-something players except for the 26-year-old Parker, the future seems uncertain.
Starting guard Derek Fisher and seldom-used reserve Ira Newble are the only players on the Los Angeles roster over 30.
The Spurs used a 15-1 run to take a 33-16 lead early in the second quarter. The Lakers trailed by 15 points before outscoring San Antonio 11-2 to finish the first half to draw within six. ... Bryant attemped only 11 free throws in this series after getting 96 opportunities from the foul line in the conference semifinals against Utah.
Lakers finish off Spurs in 5, advance to NBA finals
LOS ANGELES &