Lakers survive comeback, advance to conference finalsMay 17, 2008 - 7:17 AM By Chris Bellamy PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (Ticker) -- It took six games, but home-court advantage finally cracked.
Behind Kobe Bryant's 34-point effort, the Los Angeles Lakers stole one at the toughest home floor in the NBA, ousting the Utah Jazz from the playoffs with a thrilling 108-105 victory in Game Six of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night.
What looked like a blowout for most of the night turned into a nail-biter for the top-seeded Lakers, who had just enough in the final minutes to stave off the Jazz and avoid a Game Seven.
"This is a big step for us," Bryant said. "I think the important thing is coming on the road and winning in this building, a place where prior to tonight they lost five games all year. It shows a lot of character on our part to come out of here with a victory."
Deron Williams' 3-point attempt that would have sent the game into overtime and capped off a huge Utah rally rolled around the rim and slipped out just before the buzzer sounded to save the Lakers victory.
With the win, the Lakers not only became just the second road club to claim a victory in the entire second round but, more importantly, advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2004.
Bryant, looking fully recovered from the back spasms that have ailed him since Game Four, led his team to one of its most impressive offensive showings of the postseason.
"It feels good. It feels great. We're excited about (going to the conference finals)," Bryant said. "It's been a great journey so far, and we want to keep it rolling. We're proud of what we've accomplished, but we believe we can accomplish much more."
After having to fight off the Jazz in a hotly contested Game Five at the Staples Center on Wednesday night, the Lakers didn't have much to sweat until the closing moments of the fourth quarter when the Jazz, finally facing the very real prospect of elimination, started to battle back.
After being ice-cold from the floor all night, the Jazz got hot at just the right moment. The Jazz hit 3-pointers on five consecutive possessions including two huge ones within 12 seconds from an unlikely source, Andrei Kirilenko, the one-time All-Star not commonly known as a perimeter shooter.
"They made some run at us at the end of the game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I had confidence we would make the right play at the end of the game. I just felt (the Jazz) made some incredible shots. Obviously, five 3-pointers down the stretch is pretty remarkable in itself."
That brought Utah to within two points, at 105-103 with 16 seconds to play, forcing the Lakers to try to win the game at the free-throw line.
"It's just tough. The thing that hurt us in the first two games in L.A. was our starts, and it hurt us again," Williams said. "You can come back, but it's hard to get over that hump, and that was the case tonight. Tonight, we just couldn't take the lead back."
Despite being automatic for the most part, the Lakers gave the Jazz one last window when Derek Fisher missed one, giving the Jazz a final possession with a chance to send the game into overtime.
But Utah misfired on two opportunities to tie the game. After Mehmet Okur's attempt clanked off the rim, Williams grabbed the offensive rebound and found his way back behind the arc for his own try. His shot was tantalizingly close to extending the Jazz's season at least an extra five-minute period but just missed.
"I didn't know how much time was left so I rushed it a little bit too much. I probably could've taken my time because Kobe wasn't gonna risk fouling me. I could've taken my time a little more," Williams said. "But it was a great look and I just missed it."
Despite facing a team that lost just four times at home during the regular season, the Lakers steamed ahead from the start and never relinquished the lead.
By the five-minute mark of the opening quarter, they already had a double-digit lead a far cry from the series' first two games in Salt Lake City, when the Jazz led for nearly the entirety of both contests.
Bryant did his usual damage, posting up the perpetually outmatched Utah defenders and finishing with turnarounds and drives to the hoop. He was 8-of-10 from the foul line over the first two quarters of play.
Fisher capped off the lopsided first half with three free throws on a controversial call at the buzzer. Controversy or not, Fisher buried all three to put the Lakers up by 62-43 at the break.
"We came out and they got after us, and that's what experience can do. It can come out and get in your face a little bit, and get after you, and I thought they did that," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "It looked like if we could get a little run going, put a little pressure on them, then I thought we could get back in the ballgame. But we couldn't calm down."
The Jazz, one of the most efficient offensive clubs in the league throughout the season, shot just 33 percent (14-of-42) from the field in the first half. The frontcourt tandem of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur was ineffective, despite a strong presence on the boards.
Boozer was repeatedly double-teamed by the Lakers' quicker, longer big men, frustrating the three-time All-Star who led the Jazz in scoring this season but has struggled to find his offensive game in the playoffs. He fouled out in the fourth quarter after just a 12-point effort.
"I'm disappointed in my play," Boozer said. "I feel like I let my teammates down. I could've played a whole lot better."
Okur, meanwhile, was just 1-for-7 from the field in the first half before catching fire down the stretch.
The Jazz hardly made a dent in their deficit until midway through the fourth quarter, and even then it wasn't nearly enough of one.
With Boozer taking up the attention of the Lakers' interior defense, Williams found reserve Paul Millsap instead.
Millsap, a second-year forward from Louisiana Tech, scored eight straight points in the fourth quarter to spark the Jazz's comeback. He finished two fast breaks with dunks including one while facing heavy traffic in the paint and had 12 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter alone.
"He was just very aggressive offensively; defensively, he was very active. He provided us with a big spark of energy," Williams said of Millsap. "He was running the floor hard, and I wanted to get the ball to him."
But the Lakers had their answer and, as usual, it was the league's Most Valuable Player. After a pair of Matt Harpring free throws pulled Utah to within seven, Bryant pulled up for a 3-pointer to extend the lead back into double digits.
Moments later, he extended it even further, starting with his back to the basket on Harpring and quickly turning around for an off-balance fadeaway that dropped in off the glass, plus a foul.
"I went to the 'Black Mamba,'" Bryant said. "I just had to take advantage of the opportunities. It's my role to kind of be patient and just pick my spots. Then when that moment comes, it's my responsibility to this ballclub to make the right plays."
The Jazz's flurry of 3-pointers late in the period brought them back to within striking distance yet again, but they never got any closer than a two-point deficit.
"Surprisingly enough, I think the best looks they had may have been at the end of the game when they missed two open threes," Jackson said. "We'll remember most of all the fact that we played with some sense of urgency and determination."
Williams led the Jazz with 21 points and 14 assists. Okur added 16 points and 10 boards but shot just 6-of-18 from the field.
LA LAKERS 108
UTAH 105 FINAL
May 17 1:19 AM
LA LAKERS 86
UTAH 70 END, 3RD QTR
May 17 12:36 AM
LA LAKERS 62
UTAH 43 HALFTIME
May 16 11:49 PM
LA LAKERS 33
UTAH 20 END, 1ST QTR
May 16 11:12 PM
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