LOS ANGELES (AP) -- At 2:30 a.m. Friday, Shaquille O'Neal and his
daughter were roused by a ringing telephone.
"I need you, big fella,'' Kobe Bryant said. "Let's make history.''
Perhaps it was just the wakeup call O'Neal needed. Several hours later, the NBA's most dominant big man simply wouldn't allow the Lakers' dream of a dynasty to die at home.
Carrying his teammates on his broad shoulders one more time, O'Neal had 41 points and 17 rebounds as the two-time defending champions forced a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals, beating the Sacramento Kings 106-102 Friday night.
With everything from savage dunks and delicate hook shots to a
string of 10 straight free throws in his most prolific game of the postseason, O'Neal shook off the injuries that have plagued him -- and got the officials' calls that eluded him -- to flatten the frustrated Kings.
"I'm still feeling pretty much the same,'' O'Neal said of his
many injuries, "but I'm asking the guys to throw me the ball.''
O'Neal wouldn't allow this epic playoff series to end early.
Now, it will end appropriately, with the champs matched against the
NBA's best regular-season team in a winner-take-all game on Sunday.
The winner of Game 7 at Arco Arena will play host to the New Jersey Nets, winners of the Eastern Conference, in Game 1 of the Finals on Wednesday night.
The Lakers won thanks to O'Neal's brute brilliance and a steady parade to the free-throw line that infuriated the Kings, who felt the officials had caved in to O'Neal's week-long carping about disrespect and poor calls.
"I feel sorry for our team, because they did everything they could to win the game,'' Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said. "It's a shame, a real shame. ... Our big guys get 20 fouls, and Shaq gets four. You tell me. Obviously, they got the game called the way they wanted to get it called.
"We tried to play through it ... but obviously, it was a huge change tonight over the last few games.''
But the Kings knew from the start of their quest to dethrone the champs that they had no answer for Shaq at the top of his game. O'Neal went 13-for-17 from the line -- not a remarkable feat for most players, but an indication of just how seriously O'Neal took this game.
"I've been in the league 10 years, and I've only complained about the officiating about five times,'' O'Neal said. "A couple of games in this series, I tried to be cute and stay out of foul trouble ... but I decided to play my game, be aggressive, and let the fouls come as they may.''
Bryant had 31 points -- going 11-of-11 from the line -- and 11 rebounds in the Lakers' first elimination game since the 2000 conference finals against Portland.
Los Angeles went nearly six minutes without a field goal down the stretch in the fourth quarter, but made 18 free throws over the final 6:21 to hold off the Kings. Bryant made four free throws in the final 19.8 seconds for the Lakers, who shot a jaw-dropping 27 free throws in the fourth.
"I've heard from some champions that to get to be a champion, you have to go through this, so I was warned,'' Sacramento's Chris Webber said. "It's in the books, and we have to some back ready to play. In no way is this crying.''
Without O'Neal's effort, Los Angeles' hope of a third straight title probably would have died against another aggressive, uptempo effort by the Kings. Webber had an outstanding game, finishing with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
But O'Neal was relentless in a performance fitting for the "last true center,'' as he calls himself. He scored 21 points in the first half, then didn't come out of the game until the final seconds of the second half, getting the ball on nearly every important possession.
While winning three of the previous four games in the series,
Sacramento used foul trouble and big early leads to wear down
O'Neal and his arthritic toe before crunch time; in Game 6, O'Neal
didn't appear the least bit tired or injured.
"I knew before the game I'm going to be out,'' Divac said. "Shaq (fouled out) up there, I (fouled out) right here.''
The Lakers shot 40 free throws to the Kings' 25.
"There were some very interesting sequences in this game that were some eye-openers,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson admitted. "I'm sure we'll want to take another look at them, both Rick and myself.''
The Kings went up 90-89 on Divac's three-point play with 4:38
left, but the officials were busy turning the game into a free-throw shooting contest. Bryant, Robert Horry and Rick Fox all contributed free throws as the Lakers went up 99-96.
Los Angeles didn't get a field goal between O'Neal's hook shot with 6:51 left and his nimble reverse layup with 52 seconds to play that put the Lakers up 101-98.
Hedo Turkoglu twice cut the lead to one point, but Bryant -- who made seven free throws in the fourth -- was perfect on four straight free throws, and Bibby missed a 3-pointer over Bryant to seal it.
O'Neal scored 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting in the first half,
but Sacramento closed the half with 10 straight points. Divac's
buzzer-beating 3-pointer -- from the exact spot where Horry won Game
4 for the Lakers -- gave the Kings a 56-51 halftime lead.
With 12 seconds left, Bryant dropped Bibby to the ground
with an apparently inadvertent elbow to the point guard's face on an inbounds play. Bibby's nose wasn't broken. ... The Kings are facing their first
elimination game of the playoffs. They've already won more
postseason games this spring (10) than they won in the previous 20
seasons combined (8). ... Webber, Divac and Devean George all got
technical fouls in the first half. ... Among the celebrities in
attendance: Eddie Murphy, Brad Pitt, Will Smith and wife Jada
Pinkett-Smith, David Duchovny, Chris Rock, Luke Wilson, Stephen
Dorff, Catherine Keener, Texas Tech coach Bob Knight and Tracy
McGrady of the Orlando Magic.