Bryant lifts Lakers into NBA Finals as L.A. rallies from 17-point hole

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Lakers celebrated the Western Conference championship before their adoring fans at Staples Center, but not too hard.

They've got one more goal to reach before the real excitement begins.

Kobe Bryant scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied from an early 17-point deficit to beat the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs 100-92 on Thursday night and win the conference finals in five games.

They get a week off before opening the NBA Finals next Thursday night at Boston or Detroit. The Celtics lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-2 with Game 6 on Friday night in Detroit.

"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 are 12-3 in the playoffs, including 8-0 at Staples Center, where they haven't lost in two months. They have won 14 straight home games and 21 of their last 24 postseason games at home.

"My heart's still pumping, that adrenaline is still running from the game," said Lamar Odom, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "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."

A basket by Odom gave the Lakers an 83-76 lead with 5:40 remaining, but a 3-pointer by Brent Barry and a basket by Tony Parker drew the Spurs within two points. Manu Ginobili missed a 3-pointer that could have given San Antonio the lead before Bryant's jumper with 3:33 to play made it 85-81.

A foul shot by Tim Duncan drew the Spurs within three, but two more baskets by Bryant made it 89-82 with 1:47 to play, and the Spurs weren't closer than five points after that.

Pau Gasol had 12 points, a career playoff-high 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots and backup guards Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar added nine and eight points, respectively.

Parker scored 23 points and Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists for the Spurs. Michael Finley scored 13 points, Barry and Kurt Thomas added 11 each and Ginobili was held to nine, shooting just 3-for-9.

"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."

Former Lakers star and executive Jerry West presented the Lakers the Western Conference championship trophy on the court following the game. By that time, the players were all wearing T-shirts and caps denoting their championship status.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson has won nine championships, tied for the NBA record with former Boston coach Red Auerbach.

"I like not to get involved personally in this and think of this as a team effort," he said regarding what playing in the NBA Finals means to him. "As much as I appreciate the league trying to emphasize the Western Conference trophy, that doesn't mean too much when that big prize is still out there.

"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."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pointed to his team's offense -- and the Lakers' defense -- as the keys to 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.

"[The Spurs] 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."

The Lakers clinched their berth in the finals a year to the day after Bryant called the team's front office "a mess" during a radio interview. A day later, he demanded a trade, ultimately saying he preferred playing on Pluto rather than returning to the team he joined as an 18-year-old in 1996.

The situation calmed down until Lakers owner Jerry Buss told reporters during training camp in October he was listening to offers for Bryant, angering the superstar once again.

But once the season began, Bryant bonded with his teammates, led the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in the rugged West and won his first MVP award.

"Once the season started, I didn't think about a trade or anything like that," Bryant said. "I just buckled down into what I needed to do to get this team to play our best basketball. That's what we did."

The Lakers will be playing in the finals for the 23rd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1961 and the 29th time overall. They have won 14 championships -- nine in Los Angeles and five in Minneapolis.

The Lakers and the Celtics have met 10 times in the finals, with Boston winning the first eight matchups and Los Angeles the last two -- in 1985 and 1987. That's the last time the Celtics advanced to the championship round.

The Lakers and Pistons have met three times in the finals, most recently in 2004, when Detroit won in five games. Shaquille O'Neal, who teamed with Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight championships starting in 2000, was traded a month later, and the Lakers hadn't won a postseason series since until last month.

San Antonio's elimination might signal the end of its era of dominance. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs won championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, but with a rotation made up solely of 30-something players except for the 26-year-old Parker, the future seems uncertain.

Meanwhile, starting guard Derek Fisher and seldom-used reserve Ira Newble are the only players on the Los Angeles roster over 30.

"I really expected to be here, even with all the questions at the beginning of the season," Fisher said.

Ultimately, it was the Lakers' youth, quickness and athleticism that determined this series. The turning point occurred in Game 1, when the Spurs took a 20-point third-quarter lead before the Lakers outscored them 44-20 for an 89-85 victory.

San Antonio had a shot in Game 4, but the Lakers held on for a 93-91 victory that put the Spurs on the brink of elimination. And that came Thursday night.

A 3-pointer by Luke Walton and baskets by Farmar and Bryant gave the Lakers a 74-68 lead with 8 1/2 minutes remaining, and they were on top the rest of the way.

The Spurs led by as many as 10 points early in the third quarter, but the Lakers turned up their defensive intensity during a 19-8 run that gave them a 61-60 lead -- their first since the opening minute. Bryant scored nine points during the spurt. Los Angeles led 64-63 entering the final period.

The Spurs got 3-pointers from Finley, Ginobili and Barry during a 15-1 run that gave them a 33-16 lead early in the second quarter. The Lakers went nearly 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal until Farmar scored three straight baskets to trim San Antonio's lead to 11.

It was 46-31 before the Lakers went on an 11-2 run to finish the second quarter, cutting the Spurs' lead to 48-42.

Game notes
Only eight teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. The Spurs are now 0-7 in such situations. ... Phoenix was the last NBA team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series, accomplishing the feat against the Lakers two years ago in the first round. ... Bryant attempted only 11 free throws in this series after attempting 96 against Utah.