On the brink of one of the greatest collapses in NBA playoff history, the Los Angeles Lakers found the heart so many suspected they didn't have.
In just over 10 magnificent minutes, the team that almost blew it all mounted the biggest fourth-quarter comeback ever in a Game 7.
"It took everything we had,"Lakers forward Glen Rice said. "We were down 15 and time was running out. The big thing was we didn't panic."
Los Angeles, on the verge of losing three straight games for the first time all season, went on a 15-0 run to erase that 15-point Portland lead and went on to beat the Trail Blazers 89-84 Sunday and win the Western Conference championship.
Before Sunday, the biggest comeback in a Game 7 was a mere six points.
"This is what makes champions,"Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "We watched Game 7s growing up all the time, and to finally play in one is a real
Los Angeles advances to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991 with Game 1 on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers in the Staples Center. The Lakers will hard-pressed to top this one, though.
The home-court advantage the Lakers earned with 67 regular-season victories proved invaluable as Los Angeles mounted its memorable rally.
"Game 7s are very interesting, but I've never seen any quite like that one before,"said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who is trying to bring a title to Los Angeles after winning six with Chicago.
Shaquille O'Neal, rendered ineffective most of the game by Portland's double- and triple-teaming defense, scored nine points in the fourth quarter, punctuating the rally with a thundering dunk on a lob pass from Bryant that put Los Angeles ahead 85-79 with 40 seconds to play.
The usually unemotional O'Neal waved his index fingers at the crowd with an amazed expression on his face as he ran downcourt.
"They were playing their best ball the whole game and we were just scratching and clawing,"O'Neal said. "The Blazers are a fabulous team and this is probably a rivalry that's going to last throughout my entire career."
O'Neal had 18 points and nine rebounds and was 8-of-12 from the free throws line, including two that tied the game 77-77 with 2:44 to play.
"My father once told me that even if you shoot 99 percent and don't make the ones you're supposed to make, nothing else matters,"O'Neal said.
Bryant, the other half of the superstar tandem that is supposed to lead this franchise back to its historic greatness, had 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots. He made just six of 12 free throws, but he sank two from the line to put the Lakers ahead for good, 81-79, with 1:34 remaining.
Brian Shaw made three crucial 3-pointers for the Lakers, one at the end of the third quarter and two during the big fourth-quarter rally. He and Rice each scored 11 points.
Rasheed Wallace scored 30 points on 13-for-26 shooting but hasix of the Blazers' 13 consecutive misses during the Lakers' run that wiped out a 75-60 lead. Wallace also missed two free throws with Portland trailing 81-79 with 1:25 to go.
Scottie Pippen, brought to Portland to provide the leadership the team needed to win a championship, fouled out with 25 seconds to go with 12 points and 10 rebounds. He was just 3-of-10 from the field.
Steve Smith scored 18 points for Portland but was just 1-for-5 from the field in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers trailed 71-58 after three quarters but outscored Portland 31-13 in the fourth. After shooting 50 percent through three quarters, the Blazers shot 22 percent in the fourth (5-for-27).
"We did a lot of things right most of the night,"Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said, "but in the fourth quarter we just couldn't make shots."
After Ron Harper made one of two free throws to put the Lakers ahead 86-82 with 32 seconds remaining, Smith drove the lane but the ball was knocked away with no foul called.
Bryant missed two free throws with 25 seconds to go, but again Portland couldn't capitalize. Robert Horry, who was 4-for-6 from the line in the final minute and scored 12 points, made two free throws with 17 seconds to go to boost the lead to 88-82, and the Blazers were finished.
Pippen, who has six championship rings but none without Michael Jordan as a teammate, scored nine points in the first quarter but made one of seven shots after that.
"It's tough to swallow right now and I'm sure it will be all summer,"Pippen said.
But he said the fourth-quarter failure shouldn't obscure how the Blazers fought back in this series.
"Nobody expected us to push them so hard. Nobody gave us a chance when we were down 3-1,"Pippen said. "There's more to feel proud of than there is to be down about."
The Trail Blazers, who had beaten the Lakers twice in Los Angeles in the playoffs, were trying to become the seventh team to come back from being down 3-1 to win a series and the first to do it in the conference finals.
Most of the evening, they looked as if they would.
As had been the case throughout the series, Portland took an early lead.
Damon Stoudamire, Smith and Pippen hit consecutive 3-pointers in a 13-0 run that put Portland ahead 19-9.
The Lakers cut it to three late in the second half, the last time on Bryant's stuff shot that made it 42-39 just before the halftime buzzer.
Los Angeles outscored Portland 10-4 to start the third quarter to go ahead 49-48 on Rice's drive to the basket for a three-point play with 6:22 left in the period.
Wallace's two free throws put Portland back ahead 50-49, then Rice made a 19-footer to give Los Angeles a 51-50 lead.
Then, led by Smith, the Blazers took over.
Smith scored the first seven points, and 10 overall, in a 21-4 run that put the Blazers up 61-55 on Pippen's 3-pointer, his only basket after the first quarter, with 20 seonds left in the third quarter. Shaw's banked 3-pointer made it 71-58 after three.
The Lakers showed no signs of mounting that big finish early in the fourth quarter. Bonzi Wells made two free throws with 10:28 to play to give Portland a 75-60 lead.
But O'Neal's basket started the big run, then Shaw hit a 3 and the biggest 10½ minutes of the Lakers' season had begun.
When it was over, Pippen went to Harper, his old Chicago teammate, and said something.
"I just wished him good luck,"Pippen said, "and said 'Go win them a championship.'"
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