PORTLAND, Ore. - The Los Angeles Lakers looked as if they were going to be knocked outlast night at several moments in Game 3 of the NBA's Western Conference finals at the Rose Garden. The Portland Trail Blazers looked as if they were going be knocked out late.
Both teams are still standing in their much-hyped series that finally lived up to its billing, but the Lakers have regained the home-court advantage with their thrilling 93-91 victory. Game 4 will be played here tomorrow afternoon.
Ron Harper's 17-footer from the left baseline proved to be the game-winner, coming with 29.9 seconds left and following turnovers by each team after Scottie Pippen tied the score at 91 with 1:14 remaining. The Trail Blazers then had two chances to tie. First, Rasheed Wallace was stripped in the lane as he wheeled toward the basket. Then, after Lakers forward Glen Rice had the ball poked from behind as he dribbled up court, Portland had another chance. But Arvydas Sabonis was blocked by Kobe Bryant as he drove the lane.
Bryant got the rebound as time ran out. The Lakers celebrated, high-flying each other and acting much the way the Trail Blazers did in winning Game 2 in Los Angeles. The Trail Blazers left the court amid boos from their fans, who thought Sabonis had been fouled. Replays showed that the block was clean.
Faced with a 14-point second-quarter deficit and the gloomy prospect of going down two games to one, the Lakers climbed back on the massive shoulders of center Shaquille O'Neal and went for a scintillating second-half ride. O'Neal scored 18 of his game-high 26 points after halftime.
Bryant finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Wallace, who hit nine of 11, shots, and Damon Stoudamire, whose 7-for-10 shooting included 3-for-4 on three-pointers, led five double-figure scorers for Portland with 19 points each.
Asked what effect his team's victory might have on the outcome of the series, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "This tightens it up. We got our home-court advantage back, and we get another notch in our belts. Portland's at deaths door if they don't win Sunday, and they know it."
Or do they? Said Pippen: "It's just about going out and playing Sunday. We still feel good about ourselves. We let this one slip away and obviously they know it."
It appeared that the Lakers were knocking at that same door themselves last night.
After trailing early in the game by scores of 15-2 and 20-8 that eventually became 47-33, the Lakers roared back midway through the third quarter. Trailing 55-45 at halftime and by 61-49 deficit early in the third quarter, L.A. took the lead, 72-71, going into the fourth quarter.
O'Neal had led the comeback, scoring 13 points in the quarter after scoring just eight the entire first half.
"The coaching staff and players got on me because I wasn't working hard enough in the first half," said O'Neal, who had taken only one shot in the first quarter and six in the first half. "The shots [for others] were coming too quick. The second half I got the ball more and was able to score."
The Lakers scored the first four times they had the ball in the final quarter to stretch their lead to 81-74. After the Lakers scored again on backup point guard Derek Fisher's second basket of the quarter for an 83-74 lead, the Blazers called a timeout.
After a brief scuffle between Pippen and Lakers forward Rick Fox going into the timeout - both received technicals - the Trail Blazers started their own comeback. They cut their deficit to 83-79 on a foul-line jumper by Wallace and a three-point shot by Stoudamire.
But O'Neal seemingly stopped the run cold with a three-point play, and Harper added a free throw for an 87-79 lead with 5:13 remaining. The Trail Blazers weren't through yet and eventually tied the score on Pippen's post-up layup with 74 seconds left.
With the Trail Blazers clamping down on O'Neal in the post and tightening up on Bryant outside, the ball went to Harper. A veteran of three world championship teams with the Chicago Bulls, Harper hit one of the biggest shots of his career.
"I was happy that the guys on the team know where I'm at," said Harper, who finished with 12 points. "I told them after the timeout that I would be wide-open."
It appeared that Sabonis was open too - twice. After Stoudamire retrieved the ball when Rice was stripped from behind, the point guard drove the lane and kicked the ball out to Sabonis. Figuring Sabonis might take a long jumper, O'Neal flew in his direction. Sabonis drove. In stepped Bryant.
"He did the right thing as far as taking it to the hole. He got a good look at the basket; he attacked the basket, but Kobe blocked him," said Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy. "Tough call to make at the end of a game. They had to let things go so I didn't know if it was a foul or not."
It took nearly three games, but this series has finally started to heat up. Both the Lakers and Trail Blazers looked like the heavy-weights they had been during the regular season. But the biggest heavyweight of all - O'Neal - wound up carrying his team on his massive shoulders last night.