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Too close for comfort

Lakers move within half-game of division lead

Posted: Sunday March 24, 2002 9:27 PM
Updated: Sunday March 24, 2002 10:44 PM
  Shaquille O'Neal Shaq goes up uncontested for two of his 21 points. AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- For the Lakers and Kings, this was not merely 1/82nd of the schedule. This was a big one, about as big as games get during the regular season, and nobody was claiming otherwise.

"I do believe in statement games," said Kobe Bryant, who scored eight of his team's final 10 points to lead Los Angeles to a 97-96 victory Sunday over the league's toughest home team.

"They have been playing extremely well at Arco, and for us to come in and win the game -- especially this type of game, because we really didn't play good basketball -- I think it does send a little message," Bryant said.

Bryant finished with 29 points and carried his team on offense down the stretch after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out, helping the Lakers become just the fourth team to win on the Kings' court this season.

Sacramento missed a chance to open a 2 1/2-game lead over the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks in the Western Conference. The Kings got the final shot, but Chris Webber missed a turnaround 10-footer from the right corner while being closely guarded by Robert Horry.

"It was an exciting game; I think the game really lived up to its hype," Bryant said.

Los Angeles is just a half-game behind Sacramento in the standings with 14 games remaining and holds a 2-1 lead in the season series. The teams meet again on the final night of the regular season.

"If we wind up having home-court advantage, that's great. If we don't, that's fine too," Bryant said. "When the playoffs start, the title has to come through L.A. I don't care what your record is."

O'Neal had 21 points, shooting 8-for-9 from the field, and Derek Fisher added 16 for the Lakers, who won despite being outrebounded 48-36.

Webber scored 24, Doug Christie added 18, Hedo Turkoglu 17 and Mike Bibby 14 for the Kings, who were without Peja Stojakovic (sore hamstring). Vlade Divac had 11 points and 17 rebounds.

"I'll take the responsibility," Webber said. "I'll remember this. It hurts a lot because I missed a big shot."

O'Neal fouled out with 1:19 left trying to block a putback by Divac, who made the second of two free throws to tie it at 93.

Bryant then blew past Christie and between two other defenders for a reverse layup, and Christie could only make one of two from the line with 52 seconds left.

Bryant gave the Lakers a three-point lead by going to his right and hitting a fadeaway 15-footer over Christie with 36 seconds left, making it 97-94 before Webber answered with a jump hook with 29 seconds remaining.

The Kings then double-teamed Bryant near midcourt with the shot clock running down, and Divac blocked a jumper by Rick Fox to force a 24-second violation.

That gave Sacramento 5.2 seconds to go for the win, but Webber's high-arcing shot was no good.

"It was a shock to us that they ran that last play on that side of the court," Horry said. "I just stood there and made sure he didn't go around me."

Bobby Jackson and Bibby hit consecutive 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter and give the Kings an 80-73 lead, but O'Neal scored twice and Devean George scored seven points in a 14-2 run that put Los Angeles ahead 87-82.

Webber hit a pair of foul shots, tipped in his own miss and hit Jackson with a perfect bounce pass for a backdoor layup to pull the Kings to 91-90 with 2:49 left, and the game was tight the rest of the way.

"We just know that being three down in the loss column would not be a good scenario for us. It's much better to be down by one," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whose team showed the poise befiting the two-time defending champions that they are.

"They have two championships. This was nothing to them," Webber said.

Or, as Bryant put it: "We don't shake."

Neither team was able to open a double-digit lead at any time, although the Kings led by nine at one point and were ahead for a majority of the first three quarters.

Webber did the bulk of his damage in the early going, scoring 14 in the first quarter -- including the first four of the game in his first action of the season against the Lakers. Webber missed the first two meetings because of a sprained ankle.

Slava Medvedenko kept the Lakers close in the second quarter, scoring eight points in the period as O'Neal was hampered by foul trouble. O'Neal picked up his third foul with 7:01 remaining, although Jackson did not take him out for another two minutes.

Notes: O'Neal also had seven rebounds and six assists. He did not speak to the media after the game. ... The Lakers have won four of five and 11 of 14 at Arco Arena. ... Sacramento dropped to 26-1 when leading after the first quarter at home. ... Kings coach Rick Adelman used only seven players -- the five starters plus Jackson and Scot Pollard.

Related information
SI's Burns: Market Watch
SI's Marty Burns: NBA Mailbag
SI's Jack McCallum: NBA Mailbag
NBA Power Rankings: Mar. 19-25
Game Summary: Lakers-Kings
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