Lakers 98, Spurs 90
-- After spending his morning and afternoon in an Eagle, Colo., court room, pleading not guilty to felony sexual assault charges, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant took a chartered jet back to this city and carried his team to victory. Bryant's 42-point performance in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals lifted the Los Angeles Lakers to a 98-90 win over the San Antonio Spurs and evened this best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
His performance in his team's biggest game of the season breathed new life into a team that seemed to be on life support after the Spurs won the first two games of this series. Now, it's a best of-three showdown, with Game 5 Thursday in San Antonio.
"We're playing hard right now. We're playing like every possession is our last," Bryant said. "This is the type of effort you need right now, especially against a team like San Antonio."
Shaquille O'Neal added 28 points and 14 rebounds. No other Laker was in double figures.
Asked about his long day of travel before stepping on the floor, Bryant said he was unbothered. "I've been playing this game since I was 3. . . . It just feels good to be out there."
Spurs forward Tim Duncan (19 points, 10 rebounds) had a steady game, he failed to take over at any point. Point guard Tony Parker (18 points) has been kept from going on any prolonged stretches of solid play too, and while role players Manu Ginobili (21 points) and Hedo Turkoglu (16 points) had steady games, the inability of San Antonio's big duo to rise up to the level of Bryant and O'Neal was crucial.
San Antonio's vaunted defense also was shredded as L.A. made 50 percent of its shots, a figure rarely seen in a game this important between teams who have met so many times.
Then again, Bryant was nearly unstoppable. He scored 18 first-half points, then, after a game-turning third quarter, led by O'Neal, Bryant stirred a monsoon of momentum to get his team, down by 10 at halftime, a double-digit lead just minutes into the final period.
San Antonio got as close as 76-73 in the opening stretch of the fourth quarter but Bryant nailed a three pointer and a Dr. J-like scoop shot from under the backboard to quickly get the Lakers to 83-73. From there, with the crowd on its feet, Los Angeles put the finishing touches on a performance that is going to generate cries that maybe, just maybe, they can win the championship that this team was built to capture.
Forward Karl Malone had just 9 points but he was bothered Duncan on defense for the second straight game. Guard Gary Payton was steady and, as usual, the Lakers got very little from the small forward spot. However, with Bryant adding yet another showcase performance to his already lengthy list of incredible games, the Lakers needed little else.
The Lakers erased a 10-point, halftime deficit with an overwhelming third quarter, which, after they held the Spurs to just five field goals, ended with L.A. up 74-69 going into the decisive fourth. Los Angeles, which came out of the break playing with a sense of despair, outscored San Antonio 31-16 in the quarter as Bryant and O'Neal went to work. The tandem combined for 25 points in the quarter while, in step with their teammates, held San Antonio just 25 percent shooting.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were in lockstep offensively, making 12 of 19 shots, and, their aggression was highlighted by their 13-5 rebounding edge in the quarter.
Bryant did his best to get the Lakers back in the game after re-entering the game four minutes in the second period and L.A. down 10. He scored 11 of his 18 first-half points in the quarter, some in spectacular fashion, however the Spurs seemed to always have an answer, including a late surge that stretched their lead to 53-43 at halftime.
Los Angeles, which trailed by 10 early in the second quarter, got as close as 41-40 after a highlight-film drive and over-the-shoulder runner by Bryant but San Antonio countered with a 13-2 run.