Lakers stop Suns, to face Celts in Finals
The Lakers and Celtics, the NBA's premier teams for much of the NBA’s history, will meet in the Finals for the 12th time with Game 1 Thursday night in Los Angeles. They are the NBA champions each of the last two years — Boston beat the Lakers two years ago, and Los Angeles topped Orlando last season.
“We'll see how much we matured,'' Bryant said. “They challenged us extremely well in the Finals a couple years ago. Now is a chance to see how much we've grown.''
Bryant scored nine points in the final 2 minutes, including what looked like an impossible 23-footer with Grant Hill in his face and 34 seconds to play. The basket put Los Angeles up 107-100 and the scrappy Suns were finished.
The Lakers will be in search of their 16th NBA championship in their 31st Finals appearance.
Amare Stoudemire, in what may have been his last game with the Suns, scored 27 points but struggled to a 7-of-20 shooting night. He can opt out of the final year of his contract and has said chances are “50-50'' that he will play elsewhere next season.
Steve Nash added 21 points and nine assists in his 118th playoff game, the most for anyone who has never reached the Finals.
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Bryant, with his 10th 30-point performance in his last 11 postseason games, moved ahead of Jerry West and into a tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second-most 30-point playoff games at 75. He has a ways to go for the record of 109 held by Michael Jordan.
Bryant also extended his NBA record to eight straight 30-point closeout games on the road.
“I always thought he was the best player in basketball,'' Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said.
Channing Frye had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Suns, who have reached the Finals only twice in their history and never have won a championship. Goran Dragic scored 10 of his 12 points in a fourth-quarter rally that got Phoenix within three points.
The Lakers led by as many as 18 late in the second quarter and were up by 17 entering the fourth.
But four Suns reserves plus Stoudemire got the Suns back into it after Los Angeles took a 91-74 lead into the fourth quarter.
“With a three-point shooting team like Phoenix,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, “you know that any lead is not impossible'' to overcome.
With Bryant on the bench for a brief rest, Dragic scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter to slice Los Angeles' lead to 91-82 with 10:27 left.
The Lakers' Sasha Vujacic drew a flagrant foul for an elbow to the face of his fellow Slovenian with 11:18 to play. Dragic made both free throws, then blew by Vujacic for a layup to cut it to 91-80 with 11:12 left. Dragic drove for another layup the next time as Bryant made a hasty return to the court.
Gentry stayed with the lineup, and the run reached 16-4 on Stoudemire's layup after a slick pass from Dragic under the basket to cut it to 95-90 with 6:09.
Nash and Jason Richardson finally re-entered the game with 3:26 to play and Los Angeles leading 99-92. Stoudemire made two free throws, then Nash cut it to 99-96 on a layup with 2:19 left.
Bryant sank a 21-footer, Lamar Odom stole Nash's pass and Bryant made two free throws to stretch it to 103-96 with 1:43 to go. Four straight points by Stoudemire cut it to 100-95 with 53.1 seconds left, but Bryant responded with his dagger over Hill and the surprising playoff run of the undersized, overmatched Suns was over.
“I just got a little separation,'' Bryant said, smiling.
Los Angeles outscored the Suns 23-10 over the last eight minutes of the first half to lead 65-53 at the break. After Nash threw up an airball in the half's waning seconds, Bryant sank a three-pointer with 12.9 seconds left to give the Lakers the 12-point lead, their largest of the half, to the cheers of the surprisingly large and loud contingent of Los Angeles fans in the otherwise all-orange crowd.
Phoenix cut the lead to single digits only once in the third quarter, 74-65 on Stoudemire's two free throws with 5:38 left. The Lakers responded with an 11-2 run, Artest's layup in traffic making it 85-67 with 2-1/2 minutes remaining in the quarter.
Los Angeles led 91-74 entering the fourth.
NOTES: Los Angeles snapped the Suns' six-game home playoff winning streak. ... The Lakers have closed out a series in their first try eight of the last nine times. ... The Suns set their franchise record of seven consecutive playoff victories in 1979. ... Stoudemire's mother Carrie handed out orange bandages to fans to match the one her son wore over the cut on his forehead.