Lakers' Bryant rises to occasion to reach finals
By BOB BAUM
PHOENIX — Kobe Bryant is again showing the world what postseason greatness can be.
Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA finals for the third straight season after he wrapped up a magnificent Western Conference finals with a 37-point performance in a series-clinching 111-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns last night.
"Kobe's so good," teammate Lamar Odom said, "he makes incredible normal for us."
Ron Artest added 25 points as the Lakers held off a late Phoenix rally to win the series 4-2.
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. They are the NBA champions each of the last two years — Boston beat the Lakers two years ago, and Los Angeles topped Orlando last season.
"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.
"Those aren't shooters shots, they're scorers shots," Phoenix's Steve Nash said. "Those are best-player-in-the-game type shots."
Bryant will be in his seventh NBA finals in search of his fifth championship.
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. He can opt out of the final year of his contract and has said chances are "50-50" that he will play elsewhere next season.
Nash, who had promised his team would win Game 6 after its near-miss in Game 5, added 21 points and nine assists in his 118th playoff game, the most for anyone who has never reached the finals. The 36-year-old point guard praised his team, which at the season's start was expected to be fortunate to even make the playoffs.
"You might say we overachieved," he said, "but we're a good team."
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 of 109 held by Michael Jordan.
"I always thought he was the best player in basketball," Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson will be in search of his 11th NBA championship, fifth with the Lakers.
"Kobe was the man tonight," he said.
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.
"With a 3-point shooting team like Phoenix," 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 fourth quarter to slice Los Angeles' lead to 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 returned to the court.
Gentry stayed with the lineup, and the run reached 16-4 on Stoudemire's layup to cut it to 95-90 with 6:09.
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, Odom stole Nash's pass and Bryant made two free throws to stretch it to 103-96 with 1:43 to go and the Suns got no closer than five thereafter.