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NBA Crowns New Champs
LOS ANGELES (AP) The big fella cried, spilling tears that had been welling up inside his massive 7-foot-1, 330-pound body for eight years.
He hugged his family, lifting several of them off the floor, and walked to center court where the championship and MVP trophies awaited and the purple and gold confetti streamed down from the rafters.
Not any more.
Like Magic, Wilt and Kareem before him, Shaq and his sidekick Kobe can now be described with just one word: champion.
Taking over in an exciting fourth quarter that ended Larry Bird's coaching career, O'Neal and Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 116-111 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals for the franchise's first title since 1988.
"I've waited eight years of my life for this to happen, and it finally happened," said O'Neal.
The victory gave Lakers coach Phil Jackson his seventh title his first without Michael Jordan in just his first season coaching a team that had been ousted from the playoffs in each of the first three seasons since O'Neal and Bryant arrived.
O'Neal scored 41 points, marking the third time he scored 40 or more in this series. "Ugliest 41 I ever had," he said.
Bryant had 26 including four free throws that clinched it in the final 13 seconds.
"I'm numb. I'm just numb right now," the 21-year-old Bryant said. "I didn't know champagne burned this much when it gets in your eyes."
O'Neal and Bryant hugged on the court after the final buzzer, and O'Neal was mobbed by his family as he tried to leave the court. With his exit blocked, he turned around and headed to midcourt to receive the championship trophy.
It was the 12th title in franchise history for the Lakers, the seventh since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain had earned Los Angeles' previous titles, and this starstruck city had been anxiously awaiting the next one, especially since O'Neal arrived from Orlando in 1996.
Even though they trailed for most of the first three quarters against a better shooting, more experienced opponent, the Lakers were the superior team down the stretch.
Indiana tied the game at 103-103 on a three-pointer by Jalen Rose with 5:04 left, but that was the beginning of the end.
O'Neal hit a soft 10-footer from the baseline, Rose missed on a drive and Bryant calmly sank a 20-footer, bobbing and weaving and whistling ever so slightly as he sauntered back to the bench and Indiana called timeout with 3:28 left.
The Pacers then went to the Hack-a-Shaq defensive strategy, sending O'Neal to the line four times in a span of 21 seconds. He missed three of them before Jackson took him out with 2:27 left.
When O'Neal returned with 1:56 left, the Lakers' lead was down to 110-107 and Indiana had the ball. Austin Croshere was fouled with 1 second left on the shot clock and made both to make it a one-point game.
Glen Rice answered with two free throws, Croshere airballed a turnaround jumper, Bryant missed a drive and Miller rushed a long three-pointer and missed.
Bryant then was isolated at the top of the key and was hacked on a drive. He calmly made both free throws with 13 seconds left for a 114-109 lead.
Dale Davis dunked for Indiana to make it a three-point game with 5.4 seconds left, but Bryant again went to the line and calmly sank two more to clinch it.
As he walked to the bench, he pointed to his ring finger, the one that will soon be adorned with a championship ring.
After the game, owner Jerry Buss addressed the fans and commissioner David Stern presented O'Neal with his trophy. O'Neal held it aloft in his massive left arm and waved it to the crowd.
"I want to thank Phil Jackson, the real coach of the year," O'Neal said, referring to the media's selection of Doc Rivers of Orlando for that award. "I want to thank you all for believing in us. We're going to get one next year, too."
That'll be the next test for the Lakers, to see if they can build a dynasty to replace Jordan and the Bulls.
For now, though, it's one title the one O'Neal and Bryant had been waiting for.
O'Neal shot 19-for-32 from the field and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Bryant had 10 rebounds and four assists to buffer an 8-for-27 shooting performance.
Rice added 16 for the Lakers, who outscored Indiana 37-27 in the fourth quarter.
"That's what I like about Phil, not what he did with Michael and Scottie, but how he got the other guys to play," O'Neal said. "He just put it down on paper and said this is what you're going to do."
Rose had 29, Miller 25 and Davis 20 for the Pacers, whose quest for the franchise's first NBA title came up short. In the end, they simply couldn't keep up with the energy the Lakers got from a crowd that waited 12 years for this moment.
The fans got out of control outside Staples Center. They set fire to four vehicles, including two police cars and a TV news van, and lighted several bonfires.
As many as 10,000 fans gathered to celebrate outside the arena, and the Pacers' bus was prevented from leaving for at least two hours.
For much of the game, it looked like that party wouldn't happen until Game 7 Wednesday night, or maybe not at all.
The Lakers repeatedly whittled down deficits and got within one, only to watch the Pacers surge back ahead. But when Los Angeles made yet another charge early in the fourth and finally took the lead, it was the Pacers who had to play from behind.
Brian Shaw stole the ball from Rose three minutes into the fourth quarter and O'Neal scored on a fast break while being fouled to give the Lakers their first lead since late in the first quarter.
O'Neal, who stayed down for a minute clutching his left knee, missed a chance for a three-point play. But Rose then missed a reverse layup with O'Neal in his way and Rick Fox nailed a long three-pointer for a 94-90 lead.
It would be another 3½ minutes before Indiana tied it, and Horry's leaner with 4:48 left gave the Lakers the lead for good.
Their title capped a season in which they had winning streaks of 19, 16 and 11 games and were all but anointed champions before the playoffs even started. Their postseason run included a stunning comeback from a late 16-point deficit to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Sam Perkins gave Indiana its first double-digit lead on a three-pointer with 7:44 left that made it 42-32. Perkins hit another 3, the Pacers' seventh of the game, for a 47-35 lead midway though the quarter.
The Lakers finally took back the momentum late in the quarter, getting a steal from Bryant, a dunk from O'Neal, a steal from Harper and a three-pointer by Bryant all in the final 47 seconds to close to 56-53 at the half.
Bryant started the third quarter with a short jumper to make it a one-point game, but the Pacers scored nine of the next 11 points, including a three-pointer by Miller, for a 67-59 lead.
Miller shot a glance at actor Jack Nicholson after hitting his next jumper, and the Pacers maintained control for the next few minutes. But Bryant hit a short pull-up jumper, A.C. Green made a 12-footer and Rice hit a three-pointer from the corner to cut Indiana's lead to 71-70.
Los Angeles had two chances to take the lead but failed both times as Bryant missed a jumper and Rice misfired on two free throws. Indiana got its lead back up to seven as Jackson had a three-pointer and Miller had a three-point play.
The Lakers again closed within one, but Indiana scored the final four points of the quarter to take an 84-79 lead into the fourth.
Notes: Lakers reserve center John Salley became the first NBA player to win titles with three different teams. He also won with Detroit and Chicago. ... Lakers forward A.C. Green also was a member of the Lakers when they won in 1988. ... O'Neal picked up a technical foul in the second quarter for shoving Croshere in the back. Croshere also got kneed in the ribs while drawing an offensive foul on Horry late in the second quarter. Croshere finished with 16 points and an enormous amount of respect gained.