Saturday, June 1
Updated: June 1, 10:31 AM ET
Shaq, Lakers rise and shine in Game 6
By Jerry Bembry
ESPN The Magazine
LOS ANGELES -- As Shaquille O'Neal tells the story, he was lying down slobbering -- his little daughter lying on his chest, slobbering as well -- when the early-morning phone call interrupted his sleep.
It was Kobe Bryant on the other end, calling at 2:30 a.m. to make sure his big man was focused with the Lakers facing possible elimination on Friday.
"He said, 'Big fella, I need you,'" Shaq recalled of the conversation. "He said, 'Let's make history.'"
With the possibility of the Lakers' season coming to an end, the big fella delivered. With the Lakers needing an energy boost to shake off a Sacramento team playing with increasing confidence, the big fella dominated. With a 41-point, 17 rebound performance in which he fouled out two players, the big fella delivered often as the Lakers beat the Kings 106-102 on Friday night to even their best-of-seven series at three wins apiece.
The Kings desperately wanted closure Friday night, desperately wanted to win the series on the Lakers' home court.
True, the Kings still have the advantage of playing the deciding game on their own home court. But it's also true that they are now embarking -- for them -- into uncharted territory, having never played a single game so big with so much at stake.
"We know what it takes," said O'Neal of the Lakers, who won a seventh game against the Blazers in 2000 on the way to the championship. "The pressure's on them."
Yeah, and it's the pressure of Shaq's 335 pounds squeezing the air out of the Kings' big men. In a carryover from Game 5, in which he dominated the third quarter with 16 points, Shaq on Friday hit 14 of 25 shots, spreading out his dominance with 11 points in the first quarter, 10 in the second, eight in the third and 12 in the fourth. Shaq even made his free throws, hitting 13 of 17 from the line (including his first 10.
"He said, 'Come to me,' and he hadn't said that in a long time," Lakers' forward Robert Horry said. "He's been trying to get us in the game, but the only way for us to get in the game is to get his game going. He's the total package down there, and it's hard to stop him."
Vlade Divac tried to stop Shaq, and fouled out in 31 minutes (picking up his sixth foul with 2:56 left in the game). Scott Pollard tried to stop Shaq, but fouled out in just 11 minutes. The Kings were so desperate by game's end that they tried Lawrence Funderburke, who was giving up three inches and more than 100 pounds.
What's amazing is that much of the blame for the Lakers being behind 3-2 in the series going into Friday's game had fallen on Shaq's shoulders. The critics were saying that Shaq was too big, that Shaq wasn't as dominant as he was a year ago, that Shaq lacked passion.
Never mind that Shaq was leading the team in points and rebounds this series. That Shaq was accomplishing all that while playing hurt. That Shaq's teammates weren't upholding their responsibility in the Lakers' drive to three-peat.
When you are the NBA's most dominant player and make the mega dollars, you get the blame.
In Game 6, Shaq got some help. Bryant finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds, scoring 11 in the final quarter. Derek Fisher, Lindsey Hunter and Bryant (in the final minute) all took turns at harassing Mike Bibby, limiting him to 7-for-20 shooting for the game (23 points).
Also, the Lakers got to the foul line 40 times in Game 6, 27 of those attempts coming in the fourth quarter alone. O'Neal was six of 10 from the line in the fourth, while Bryant hit all seven of his fourth-quarter free-throw attempts.
"It's a shame, a real shame," said Kings coach Rick Adelman of the Lakers' repeated journeys to the line in the fourth quarter. "Our big guys get 20 fouls and Shaq gets four? Obviously, they got the game called the way they wanted to get it."
It was more than how the game was called that helped the Lakers get the win. It was also their aggression early. It was Bryant, starting the game with an elbow to Chris Webber just under four minutes in and ending the game with an elbow that blooded Mike Bibby's nose. Maybe there was some significance to his wearing the Braves jersey of Hammerin' Hank Aaron to Friday's game.
The Lakers won also because the Kings didn't play their best game. Sacramento shot just a series-low 41.3 percent from the field and Webber (26 points on 12-for-22 shooting, 13 rebounds and eight assists) was the only starter to hit over half his shots.
Still, the Kings were in the game until the final minute and even had a chance for a tie when Bibby -- defended closely by Bryant -- missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds with the Kings trailing 105-102.
So the Lakers did as promised -- they won Game 6 and force a Game 7 on Sunday in Sacramento. And O'Neal completely dominated, despite losing a bit of sleep from a wake-up call that may have been too early for his own taste.
"I couldn't get the game off my mind, so I thought I might as well call the other captain so he didn't get it off his mind," Bryant explained. "We've been through so much since we first came here. We've been swept, we've been through coaches coming and going, we've had our many ups and downs.
"Facing elimination is nothing to us," Bryant added. "He felt the same way I did."
And now the Lakers, facing their first elimination game on the road in the Phil Jackson era, feel like they have the upper hand.
"We play well in that building," Shaq said of Arco Arena. "We just have to go up and play hard, play aggressive. If we do that, then we should be fine."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at Jerry.Bembry@espnpub.com.