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An Epic Hurdle

It takes overtime in Game 7 for Lakers to get past the Kings and into Finals again


SACRAMENTO — After the minor dramas, the bouts with boredom, and the many nights they limped when they could not run, the Lakers not only returned to the NBA Finals, they were only five minutes late.

They defeated the Sacramento Kings, 112-106, in overtime Sunday night at Arco Arena, won the Western Conference finals in seven games and will play the New Jersey Nets in a best-of-seven series beginning Wednesday night at Staples Center.

When it appeared these Lakers would not leave the wake they did in their previous two championship seasons, they became the first Laker team to win a Game 7 on the road, in the first overtime Game 7 ever played in the conference finals.

They'll play the Nets to become the fifth team to win at least three consecutive championships, after Shaquille O'Neal scored 35 points and Kobe Bryant scored 30.

It was, as it turned out, still about the Lakers, still about what they do to the NBA, not what it does to them. Down, three games to two, in the series, the Lakers won the next two games, both behind a resurgent O'Neal. Afterward, when the Lakers had eliminated the Kings, perhaps the best team they'd seen in their 11 consecutive postseason series, O'Neal said there are truths to understand.

"They felt it was their time," O'Neal said. "It was not their time."

The Lakers scored the final eight points of overtime, on a short turn-around jumper by O'Neal and then two free throws each by O'Neal, Derek Fisher and Bryant.

From a 106-104 lead, the Kings missed five shots and committed two turnovers, the first when Hedo Turkoglu forced a pass that Bryant poked away from Chris Webber, the second when Robert Horry deflected another pass. Already the Kings had missed 14 of 30 free-throw attempts, could not hold a one-point lead with 38 seconds left in regulation or a two-point lead with two minutes left in the overtime.

Already they had been overrun by O'Neal for going on two games, and by the end he was being defended by Webber, Vlade Divac having fouled out. One win from eliminating the Lakers for two games over five days, the Kings went out hard, with their heads fallen and their shoulders sagging.

"This is a great feeling, because we were able to fight back," Bryant said. "The Kings, they were playing excellent basketball. They were playing better basketball than we were."

And then one of the great--and longest--series in NBA history was done, and Bryant fell into O'Neal's arms. He had played 52 minutes, equaling his career high. O'Neal played 51.

Bryant found Mike Bibby, who all but wrecked them all for 16 days, and held him too, and whispered what a wonderful player he was, and told Bibby that he knew what made him take big shots, and make big shots, in the biggest moments.

Bibby scored 29 points, four in the overtime, 12 in the fourth quarter. With 2:58 left, Bibby made an open jumper from about 19 feet. He brought the Kings to within 91-90. Coach Phil Jackson stormed from the Laker bench and shouted for a timeout and then screamed at his players twice.

Bryant threw a towel at the bench, and Horry and Jackson stood tensely for a moment on the floor, Jackson punctuating his words by pointing to the spot where Bibby made his shot, Horry doing the same. He had that effect on them, until he was gone.

"Is he a free agent?" Rick Fox asked, laughing. "Can we get him? Dr. Buss, can we spend the money? That cat is good."

Horry, who had made the game-winning three-pointer in Game 4 and had 16 points and 12 rebounds here, stood at mid-court and fired a salute into the crowd, his smile as crooked as his gait.

Fox, who had called out the Kings in the days before the series, pulled his jersey over his head and whipped it in the air. He had a playoff career-high 14 rebounds, and was aggressive to the basket on a few late possessions when the Lakers leaned toward timid.

"I knew eventually it was going to turn into a dog fight," Fox said. "I've had a lot bottled up for the last seven games. In the sense that I've had to listen to a lot of comments about where the Lakers were, the fact that we've been outplayed. And, at times, we have been. But in this locker room, we believed that we could gather ourselves."

Fisher, who had a difficult series defending Bibby and shooting, made all four of his free throws in overtime.

And that was it. The Lakers were back in the Finals. Half an hour later, the only people in the arena wore gold, and they leaned over ropes held by security guards, and yelled happily at Lakers as they walked past and waved.

Seven games hadn't been enough to drive an NBA Finals stake between them. They needed five more minutes, one more period in a season that wouldn't go easily, wouldn't die without a fight.

The sweat soaked through everything. During timeouts, one Maloof or another, the Kings' owners, would dart a few feet from their front-row seats to pluck scraps of paper from the floor. Laker owner Jerry Buss would lean slightly forward, then rock backward.

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