Stud of the Night Kobe Bryant(right), on the precipice of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2004 -- and first without Shaquille O'Neal -- was like a closer coming into a tight baseball game in the ninth inning. He just couldn't wait to take over and put the Spurs away. The league's MVP brought his team back from a double-digit second-half deficit -- just as he did in the first game of the series -- scoring 39 points, including 26 in the second half and 17 in the fourth quarter. Holding a Western Conference championship hat after the game, Bryant smiled when asked about former Lakers general manager Jerry West, who brought him to Los Angeles 11 years ago, handing him the trophy after the game. "I remember like it was yesterday. I was 17 in his Lexus riding around, scared to talk because I'm sitting next to "Mr. Clutch," Bryant said. "I had no idea he was going to be here until we were ready to do the National Anthem and he got my attention and said, 'Kick their ass.' Then I knew."
Dud of the Night It's hard to pick a dud in a game this good, but this hasn't been Manu Ginobili's series. Outside of a 30-point effort in Game 3, Ginobili went 10-of-38, including 3-for-9 on Thursday night for nine points to go with a team-high three turnovers. Before the game, Ginobili attempted to balance himself on his jammed left ankle as he watched film from Game 4 but refused to use the injury as an excuse for his struggles in the series. "No excuses," he said. "I just played bad."
Under the Radar You can't call Pau Gasol "under the radar," since his addition in February was the key acquisition that turned the Lakers from a playoff team to a championship team. But with all the attention Bryant will receive, Gasol's performance on the boards -- 19 rebounds, 10 on the offensive glass -- needs to be mentioned. "Offensively, I didn't have a good night shooting, but I was just persistent in focusing on the defensive end and trying to pursue the ball," said Gasol, who scored 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. "Chase it offensively and defensively and get better opportunities for my team."
Turning Point After trailing by 17 points in the second quarter, the Lakers went on an 11-2 run to close the gap to 48-42 just before halftime. That surge got the crowd, which had been relatively quiet, on its feet and into the game. The Lakers weathered a Spurs run in the third quarter, coming back from 10 down to take a 64-63 lead into the fourth quarter, and they never looked back. "We have to give our bench a lot of credit for that too," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "They came in with enthusiasm and picked up the tempo and the energy and that carried over to the [starters] when they came back out there in the end of the second period." Courtside Confidential So what's Jackson's strategy in close-out games such as this with a relatively young team that is now 3-0 when given the opportunity to eliminate a team? Jackson said he has no words of wisdom, deciding instead to show his team a seven-minute speech by Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glenn Ross on the importance of closing. "It's about Always Be Closing," said Jackson, who smiles when describing Baldwin holding up a pair of brass balls in the scene. "It's about taking advantage of the situation that's right in front of you. It's the way it is in this game. You have to take care of the immediacy right now." Luke Walton laughed when asked about the effectiveness of the clip. "Yeah, but he played it two years ago when were up 3-1 and lost to Phoenix [in the first round]," he said. "But we've learned a lot. We're closers now." Our Bad Neither Jackson nor Spurs coach Gregg Popovich understood the purpose of the NBA's issuing a statement regarding the last play of Game 4, when Derek Fisher wasn't called for a foul on Brent Barry before the San Antonio guard missed a potential game-winning three-pointer. "Shoulda, woulda, coulda," said Jackson. "The league usually doesn't get themselves involved in that. I was kind of surprised." Popovich wasn't even aware of the statement before the game and had to be told by reporters. "Oh, thank you, that's a great help," he said sarcastically. "I'll send some flowers to the NBA. That's great." Barry, however, had the greatest response when he found out the NBA said he got fouled 24 hours after the game was over. "That's awesome," he said, "Because Doc Brown is waiting for me outside, and we're going to get in the DeLorean and fire up the flux capacitor and we're going to go back and shoot a couple of free throws."
Stat of the Night 17 and 20. When the Spurs look back at this series, especially their losses in Los Angeles, they'll have to wonder how they were able to blow leads of 20 (Game 1) and 17 (Game 5) points. These are the types of games the Spurs used to close out en route to winning four championships in nine years. On the other hand, these are games that now show that the Lakers are a legitimate championship team. "We showed a lot of character," Bryant said. "This is the second time we have been down 17, 20 points to San Antonio. I think it shows the maturity of a young team to be patient and to not think the game is over or try to get it all back on one play. We just stuck to it and got the game back."
Looking Ahead While the Lakers await the Celtics-Pistons winner, one thing is certain: They will enter that series without home-court advantage for the first time in these playoffs. Their return to the Finals comes after a tumultuous offseason, in which Bryant was demanding to be traded exactly one year ago. Those demands seemed like a distant memory as players exited the Lakers locker room with "4" (the number of wins left before they are NBA champions) written on the grease board. "Once the season started, I didn't think about a trade or anything like that," Bryant said. "I just buckled into what I needed to do to get this team to play our best basketball and that's what we did."
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