Midway through the 2008 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers sat right in the middle of the pack of all the Western Conference powerhouses. The Rockets were in the midst of reeling off a 20+ game winning streak, the Suns had acquired Shaquille O’Neal and the defending champs in the Spurs were simply on fire. That’s right about when some guy named Kobe decided that it was time to start playing some ball, and he and the Lakers haven’t stopped since.
The reigning MVP dropped 39 points en route to Los Angeles’s 100-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night, securing a spot in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2004.
“I think it is a tremendous accomplishment,” Bryant said. “I think the West is extremely tough. We’re all extremely excited and proud about it. Now, it’s time to go on and see if we can’t finish it off.”
The Lakers trailed by 13 points after one quarter and gradually chipped away from the deficit with the help of Bryant’s firepower. At the end of three quarters of play, the Lakers had gained a 1 point advantage on a 3-point field goal by Vladimir Radmanovic (8 pts) that came with :28 seconds left on the game clock. The teams would trade buckets for the first two minutes of play in the 4th quarter before Luke Walton (5 pts) nailed his only 3-pointer of the game giving L.A. the 70-68 edge, a lead they would not lose the rest of the game.
Midseason acquisition Pau Gasol might be the most excited member of this Lakers line-up to be heading to the finals. Halfway through his season he was stuck on an awful Memphis Grizzlies team that was already making golf reservations for their summer plans. A trade right before the deadline moved Gasol into Lakerland and both parties couldn’t be happier with what they got. In yesterday’s win, Gasol netted 12 points and grabbed a playoff career-high 19 rebounds.
The only other Laker in double-figures was veteran forward Lamar Odom. Odom finished with 13 points on a 5 for 10 shooting performance and grabbed 8 rebounds in 34 minutes of action.
“My heart’s still pumping, that adrenaline is still running from the game,” said Odom. “Maybe when I sit down and have something to eat, I’ll realize what just happened. We came out here, played our game, and won. It’s satisfying, but one more step.”
That next step will be against either the Boston Celtics or Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, which begin on June 5th. The Celtics currently hold a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 taking place tonight in Detroit. The Lakers will certainly be watching intently but coach Phil Jackson knows that no matter who the opponent, it will be a challenging series.
“We look at both those opponents (Boston and Detroit) with a great deal of respect and know that we have a great, great hill to climb to be able to finish in the finals and win,” said Jackson who will be going for his 10th NBA championship ring. Currently, he is tied with former Celtics coach and legend Red Auerbach with 9 titles as head coach.
While Jackson credits the Western Conference title win as a team effort, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich points out that his team’s offensive struggles combined with L.A.’s defensive intensity were the keys to them winning the series.
“I thought we did a fine job,” he said. “We just didn’t muster the offense, for a variety of reasons. The fact that we didn’t come through offensively is a disappointment, but part of that is a credit to the Lakers. We just played a team that was better. That’s why the Lakers won. The better team won. You get a seven-game series, you win four games, you’re the best team.”
Tim Duncan’s effort in the loss was outstanding. The former MVP scored 19 points, hauled down 15 boards and dished out 10 assists for a triple-double. It just wasn’t enough to lift the Spurs past Kobe and the rest of the Lakers lineup.
“Just got to gear it up again to go to next year,” Duncan said. “Love what we had this year. We just weren’t good enough through stretches.”
Now all the Lakers can do is sit and wait because their next stop is the 2008 NBA Finals.