for this game

Bryant, Lakers advance to NBA Finals

May 30, 2008 - 6:00 AM LOS ANGELES (Ticker) -- Kobe Bryant left no doubt against the San Antonio Spurs.

Bryant scored 26 of his 39 points in the second half as the Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals with a 100-92 victory over the Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference finals Thursday night.

Pau Gasol collected 12 points and 19 rebounds for the Lakers, who reached the championship series for the first time since 2004, when they lost to the Detroit Pistons.

"Getting there that rookie year and losing was one of the worst feelings I've ever had in my life," said forward Luke Walton, who was a reserve behind four likely Hall of Famers in 2004. "It's a lot of fun to go, but you don't want to experience that (losing)."

Los Angeles won three straight titles behind Bryant and center Shaquille O'Neal earlier in the decade.

But the Lakers had a tough road to the Finals this season after navigating through one of the most competitive conferences in NBA history.

"I think it is a tremendous accomplishment," said Bryant, who nearly was traded prior to the season. "I think the West is extremely tough. For us to not have as much experience as some of the other teams in the West, still be able to get through the West, I think shows a lot of maturity and understanding.

"We're all extremely excited and proud about it. Now, it's time to go see if we can't finish it off."

Lamar Odom had 13 points and eight rebounds for Los Angeles, which trailed by 17 points in the first half. The Lakers erased a 20-point, third-quarter deficit in Game One to secure a win.

"We showed a lot of character," Bryant said. "This is the second time we have been down 17, 20 points to San Antonio. I think it shows the maturity for a young team to be patient and to not think that the game is over and try to get it all back in one play. We just stuck to it and got back in the game."

Los Angeles will face either the Pistons or Boston Celtics, who lead the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals, 3-2, with Game Six in Detroit on Friday.

The Lakers and Celtics have not met in the Finals since 1987, which ended with the fourth title of the decade for Los Angeles. It added its final championship of the decade the next season.

"We play for one thing and one thing only, and that's championships," Bryant said. "This is big, big stuff for us. We're all very excited. We are all very proud of what we have accomplished. Now, the real season starts."

But before advancing to the NBA's biggest stage, Odom and the Lakers had to fend off the defending champion Spurs, who still were steaming from a controversial home loss in Game Four.

On the game's final possession, referees failed to call a foul on Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who elbowed the Spurs' Brent Barry in the head as he put the ball on the floor while trying to shake free for a potential game-winning 3-pointer. The NBA issued an apology for the missed call on Wednesday.

The league's remorse most likely did not soothe the Spurs, who were in the unenviable position of having to beat the top-seeded Lakers three straight times to advance - including twice at the Staples Center.

Bryant made sure Los Angeles didn't even have to make the trip back to San Antonio - even if he didn't want to admit as much.

"I don't think anybody was really terrified to go back to San Antonio," Bryant said. "I think we just wanted to win the game. We just approach each game like it is our last and play with a sense of urgency and we want to win. I don't think anybody in that locker room felt nervous or anything like that if we would have lost the game."

The league's Most Valuable Player completed a big second-half turnaround with an array of dazzling moves.

Bryant, who shot 16-of-30 from the field, scored six points during a crucial stretch late in the fourth quarter to fend off the pesky Spurs.

San Antonio cut its deficit to 83-81 with 4:22 left on Tony Parker's running floater. Bryant then answered with a high-arching shot of his own, a fadeaway and a hard-charging drive sandwiched around a free throw by Duncan to make it 89-82.

But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wouldn't give all the credit to Bryant.

"The only reason I give is I think L.A. played really good defense," he said. "I think their aggressiveness was really good."

Bryant's personal run continued the road woes for San Antonio, which was 1-9 away from the AT&T Center in its last 10 playoff contests.

Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting, didn't think the Spurs were that far away from taking the Lakers' spot in the Finals.

"(The Lakers) are a good team, but I don't have the feeling that they are way better - either than us, New Orleans, Utah," Ginobili said. "They made it to the Finals because they deserve it, but I don't have that feeling that they were so much more superior."

But the win by Los Angeles didn't come before a valiant first-half push from San Antonio.

The Spurs took their largest lead of the game on Barry's 3-pointer to make it 33-16 with 10:18 left before halftime. But San Antonio would let its advantage slip away yet again.

Trailing, 44-28, with 3:57 remaining in the second, the Lakers finished the half on a 14-4 run en route to a 48-42 deficit entering the third quarter, setting up Bryant's performance in the final two periods.

Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists for the Spurs, who have won four championships since 1999 but again failed to repeat the feat.

"We haven't repeated ... for whatever reason," Duncan said. "Luckily enough, we have won four times and had the opportunity to repeat, but we have to come in next year (ready to play)."