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Turning Up the Heat

Jackson got animated with Shaq, and Kobe left Spurs in suspended animation


Shaquille O'Neal sliced open his left forearm while pretending to be Spider-Man at home with his children on the morning of May 5. Stitched and ready to take on the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, O'Neal promptly cut his right forefinger on the rim and needed three more sutures before the day was done.

Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant was accidentally kicked in the right knee by San Antonio's pesky Bruce Bowen and limped off the floor to seek medical treatment during Game 1 at Staples Center.

Talk about a 1-2 punch.

The Lakers would win, 86-80, but the bad omens were piling up fast and there didn't seem much cause for celebration after their 20th playoff victory in their last 21 games. The Lakers were bruised and bloodied, and they still needed three more victories to advance to the next round.

The Spurs were a formidable foe, a worthy adversary before the Lakers' anticipated conference final showdown against the Sacramento Kings.

Even taking into account the absence of center David Robinson, whose injured back kept him from playing the first three games, the Spurs were thought to be dangerous. After all, forward Tim Duncan had been voted the league's most valuable player in a narrow victory over New Jersey Net point guard Jason Kidd.

Things definitely got worse before they got better for the Lakers.

In Game 2, they had to outscore the Spurs, 45-32, in the second half simply to have a chance to win late. A suddenly demanding home crowd, unaccustomed to such displays of vulnerability, booed the Lakers for the first time in the playoffs.

Bryant, the swelling down in his bruised knee, fumbled the ball on the Lakers' last possession and the Spurs gained control, holding on for an 88-85 victory. Bryant scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half but came up empty on his final drive.

So, a split had cost the Lakers home-court advantage.

And then things really turned sour.

Coach Phil Jackson would later soften his statements, but on May 8, the day after the Lakers' loss in Game 2, he had what he called "a heated conversation with Shaq, actually, about getting actively involved in chasing the ball down."

In Game 3, Jackson turned to bellow at O'Neal during a timeout, but O'Neal twice waved him away in full view of 35,000 fans inside the Alamodome. O'Neal, already with gashes on his arm and finger and an arthritic right big toe that troubled him all season, had a new injury, a sprained ankle.

Still, O'Neal soldiered on, avoiding his coach's glare. He scored 22 points, took down 15 rebounds and added three assists in the Lakers' 99-89 victory.

In hindsight, the Lakers were back on track, although there were still plenty of observers who believed the best they could hope for was a split in San Antonio. O'Neal went into semi-seclusion during the practice session between Games 3 and 4, inviting hand-picked reporters into the training room for a brief conversation.

In fact, the stage was set for the pivotal moment of the series late in Game 4. It would be Bryant, rather than O'Neal, who applied the knockout blow to the Spurs, whose hopes of a 2-2 series tie heading back to Los Angeles were vaporized by one scintillating play.

The Lakers, trailing by 10 points with 4:55 remaining, took advantage of the Spurs' woeful shooting in the fourth quarter to begin a rally. (The Spurs would miss 15 of their last 18 shots.) The Lakers drew even at 85-85 with 2:10 to play.

Neither team could score until Bryant leaped above a crowd of flat-footed Spurs to catch Derek Fisher's miss. Bryant touched down only briefly, launching himself over Robinson and scoring the winning points with 5.1 seconds remaining in an 87-85 victory that silenced the Alamodome fans and the many critics who had been wondering if the two-time defending champions would at last falter.

The key to the play was that Bryant immediately sensed that Fisher's shot was off target and charged from the right wing into the paint, guessing correctly that the ball would be there when he arrived. Bryant was off the floor before anyone else, hit the court while everyone else was still in the air and was up again before Robinson could get his hands up to deflect the shot.

In a word, brilliant.

In Game 5 at Staples, the Lakers started sluggishly, closed with a 10-4 run and took the deciding game from the deflated Spurs, 93-87. Bryant scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. Duncan was tremendous in defeat, but scored only five of his 34 points in the final quarter.

By the end of the series, the Lakers had outscored the Spurs, 125-88, in the fourth quarters of the five games. It was but one indication of the Lakers' newfound resolve to do whatever was necessary to win these tight games.

Any boastfulness the Lakers might have felt they had earned with their 15-1 romp to the title in 2001 was history. Swaggering was kept to a minimum.

At this point, this was still Bryant's team to lead. O'Neal was hobbled by his injuries and not playing at peak efficiency, so it was left to Bryant to save the Lakers with his brilliant play in Game 4. In time, O'Neal would be fit again, poised to play his best basketball in the later rounds.

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