Lakers beat Suns to set up rematch with Boston
AP Sports Writer
PHOENIX — Get ready, Boston, for a rematch with Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant wrapped up a magnificent series with 37 points, Ron Artest added 25 and the Lakers held off the Phoenix Suns 111-103 tonight to win the Western Conference finals.
The Lakers and Celtics, the NBA's premier teams for much of the league's history, will meet in the finals for the 12th time with Game 1 Thursday night in Los Angeles.
"We'll see how much we matured," Bryant said. "They challenged us extremely well in the finals a couple years ago. Now is a chance to see how much we've grown."
Bryant scored nine points in the final 2 minutes, including what looked like an impossible 23-footer with Grant Hill in his face and 34 seconds to play. The basket put Los Angeles up 107-100 and the scrappy Suns were finished.
Amare Stoudemire, in what may have been his last game with the Suns, scored 27 points but struggled to a 7-of-20 shooting night. Steve Nash had 21 points and nine assists in his 118th playoff game, the most for anyone who has never reached the finals.
Bryant, with his 10th 30-point performance in his last 11 postseason games, moved ahead of Jerry West and into a tie with Kareem Abdul Jabbar for second-most 30-point playoff games at 75. He has a ways to go for the record — 109 held by Michael Jordan.
Channing Frye had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Suns, who have reached the finals only twice in their history and never have won a championship. Goran Dragic scored 10 of his 12 points in a fourth-quarter rally that got Phoenix within three points.
The Lakers led by as many as 18 late in the second quarter and were up by 17 entering the fourth. But four Suns reserves plus Stoudemire got the Suns back into it after Los Angeles took a 91-74 lead into the fourth quarter.
"With a 3-point shooting team like Phoenix," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "you know that any lead is not impossible."
With Bryant on the bench for a brief rest, Dragic scored the first eight points of the quarter to slice Los Angeles' 91-82 with 10:27 left.
The Lakers' Sasha Vujacic drew a flagrant foul for an elbow to the face of his fellow Slovenian with 11:18 to play. Dragic made both free throws, then blew by Vujacic for a layup to cut it to 91-80 with 11:12 left. Dragic drove for another layup the next time as Bryant made a hasty return to the court.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry stayed with the lineup, and the run reached 16-4 on Stoudemire's layup after a slick pass from Dragic under the basket to cut it to 95-90 with 6:09.
Steve Nash and Jason Richardson finally re-entered the game with 3:26 to play and Los Angeles leading 99-92. Stoudemire made two free throws, then Nash cut it to 99-96 on a layup with 2:19 left.
Bryant sank a 21-footer, Lamar Odom stole Nash's pass and Bryant made two free throws to stretch it to 103-96 with 1:43 to go. Four straight points by Stoudemire cut it to 100-95 with 53.1 seconds left, but Bryant responded with his dagger over Hill and the surprising playoff run of the undersized, overmatched Suns was over.
"I just got a little separation," Bryant said, smiling.