Kobe Bryant started slowly but finished with a flurry.
Bryant poured in 25 of his 27 points in the second half, including the go-ahead nine-foot jumper with 23.9 seconds remaining, as the Los Angeles Lakers overcame a 20-point deficit to beat the visiting San Antonio Spurs 89-85 on Wednesday night in theopener of their Western Conference finals.
“It’s a big win for us, it’s the Western Conference finals and a lot of us haven’t been here before,” said the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Bryant, who added nine assists and five rebounds.
“It’s a big win for a young team to come back from 20 against the defending champs,” he said.
Spain’s Pau Gasol scored 19 points while Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic added 10 for the Lakers, who in their first game since last Friday, moved to 9-2 in post-season play, including 7-0 at home.
“We have to be happy with the way we battled, because we weren’t playing well, we weren’t sharp and we weren’t loose,” Gasol said. “But the way we just kept battling put us in a position to win the game.”
“Hopefully, in the second game, we’ll come out more ready,” he said.
The Lakers host game two tonight before the best-of-seven series shifts to San Antonio for the next two contests.
Tim Duncan collected 30 points and 18 rebounds while Frenchman Tony Parker had 18 points, 10 boards and six assists for the Spurs, who were outscored 24-13 in the decisive fourth quarter. Argentine Manu Ginobili finished with a mere 10 points on three-of-13 field goal shooting.
“Obviously it’s a difficult loss and we had a great opportunity,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We didn’t take advantage of it. Hurts like hell.”
The Spurs were playing their second game in three nights after closing out New Orleans on the road in a decider on Monday night. However, Duncan refused to address fatigue as an excuse for the late collapse.
“It doesn’t matter what you want to define it us,” he said. “We ran out of gas, we didn’t make shots, whatever it may be. Bottom line is they were better than us in that fourth quarter.”
“Obviously, we were up by 20 and hoped to put them on their heels, but we didn’t,” he said. “We have to recover, come out the next game and try to win that one,” he said.
The Spurs led 51-43 at halftime behind Duncan’s 16 points and 12 from Parker. Meanwhile, Bryant had just two points for the Lakers, making one-of three floor shots in 20 minutes.
“I was trying to manage the game,” Bryant said. “I can get off anytime and I did that in the second half.”
San Antonio started the second half with a 14-2 run and the gap grew to 65-45 cushion midway through the third quarter. The Lakers began to hear uncharacteristic boos from the loyal, but disappointed sell-out crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center.
However, Bryant came alive with nine points and Gasol chipped in with eight as the Lakers closed the third quarter on a 20-7 surge to pull within 72-65.
“I knew I could make a push and once I made it, I felt like it energized us a little bit,” Bryant said. “Once we got it under 10 we knew we could be in striking distance.”
The Lakers carried the momentum into the final 12 minutes and took the lead at 85-81 with 2:17 left, following two free throws and a basket by Bryant.
Two free throws by Ginobili and a tip-in by Duncan knotted it at 85-85 with 41 seconds left. However, Bryant buried the short wide-open jumper in the lane, giving the Lakers the lead for good, 87-85.