SALT LAKE CITY — When victory finally came Tuesday night, after the Lakers had rallied from a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter and withstood the harried final seconds, it came for May 12 and it came for all-time.
Apparently not satisfied with setting a franchise record, they also moved to set the record straight, descending upon history and irony as one. This being the Lakers of today, none of the elements stood a chance, falling just like the Utah Jazz, 97-92, at the Delta Center, a win worth a 9-0 start and so much more.
No Laker team, from 1948 in Minneapolis to 1960 at the Sports Arena to the Showtime era, has opened so well. No Laker team has put together such a winning streak at any time since Nov. 10-27, 1991, when they won nine in a row in the wake of Magic Johnson's first retirement.
And no Laker victory has meant as much this season, coming with Robert Horry sidelined by a strained left hamstring, with Rick Fox guarding Karl Malone for long stretches of the second half and living to tell, and coming at the Delta Center, site of the Game 5 loss six months and one week ago in the second round of the playoffs that ended their 1996-97 season.
In that game, Kobe Bryant was handed the final shot of regulation, threw up a 14-footairball, and then three more airballs in overtime that contributed greatly to defeat as Coach Del Harris earned his "Why did you pitch to Jack Clark?"
That, of course, would be the same Kobe Bryant who Tuesday made both free throws with 1:01 remaining to provide what became the winning points, who risked a foul and blocked Bryon Russell's three-point attempt with about four seconds left as the Lakers held a 95-92 lead, and who took it to the other end for a dunk with 0.6 seconds left. Not that anyone was, at that very moment, thinking about redemption.
"I don't look at it that way," Bryant said.
"Of course I do."
So insistent was Harris on making clear to the world, or at least the Los Angeles portion of it, how the final moments transpired that he ran to Chick Hearn sitting courtside, pounded on the padded scorer's table and shouted loud enough in hopes the microphones would pick him up: "How 'bout Kobe Bryant taking the last shot of the game tonight!" He also hugged Bryant. So did Shaquille O'Neal, shouting "Payback!"
"I told him [earlier in the day] that I hoped he would get the last shot tonight," Harris said. "Except that I hoped we were ahead by 15. He said payback is going to be . . . I forget exactly what the word was. Something about 'a tough proposition,' but it started with a B. You know how those 19-year-olds are."
"Even though this was just a regular-season game," Bryant said, "it meant so much."
His 19 points, thanks mostly to making 11 of 12 free throws, were only one of the reasons, even though player and coach had long insisted that all the negative connotations of May 12 were spent. There also was the return to Delta Center, such a home-court advantage to the Jazz through the years, for the first time since the second-round elimination. And the little matter of O'Neal getting booed every time he touched the ball, the one payback the locals got.
The first confrontation between the Jazz and Lakers since O'Neal earned a one-game suspension and $10,000 fine for smacking Utah's Greg Ostertag to the floor the day of the season opener, evolved innocently. The NBA, in a rare move, dispatched one of its local security personnel to the shootaround to make sure there would be no repeat of Oct. 31 at the Forum, and nothing happened. O'Neal played, against the recently benched Ostertag and new starter Greg Foster, and nothing happened.
O'Neal got booed loudly during pregame introductions, pretty much obligatory even without the unprovoked hit, and regularly the rest of the night. He almost cared.
"I knew that the fans would be on me," he said after contributing 17 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, his second consecutive quiet outing. "I knew that. I just continued to do the same things that I've been doing."
Like all the Lakers. Winning.
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