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Defense spurred Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- With four future Hall of Famers, the Los Angeles Lakers have some kind of imposing offense.

That wasn't what it took to beat the San Antonio Spurs.

It took some kind of defense.

Kobe Bryant scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, Shaquille O'Neal had 17 points, 19 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots and the Lakers beat the Spurs, 88-76, Saturday night to win the Western Conference semifinals in six games.

It was the completion of an improbable comeback and sent the defending NBA champions home for the summer. Exactly a year earlier, it was the Spurs celebrating a conference semifinal triumph on the same court to end the Lakers' quest for a fourth straight title.

"It was a big series for us, playing the defending champs," Bryant said. "Last year they knocked us out and we had an opportunity to return the favor."

The Spurs shot 30.2 percent, including 21.3 percent in the second half when the Lakers outscored them, 49-37.

"We came out and played a second half where our defense hung together again and made them struggle for shots," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

"That was really our demise in the series," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of his team's offense. "I thought that defensively, they were wonderful."

Tony Parker, so outstanding in the first two games, shot 4 of 18 in scoring 9 points and had only three assists in the finale.

"We knew Tony was cutting us up," Jackson said. "We just threw the wall at him, basically, threw bodies at him."

The Lakers will face the winner of the Minnesota-Sacramento series, which is tied, 3-3. Game 7 is Wednesday.

The Lakers became the eighth team in NBA history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games. The last team to accomplish such a feat was Houston, which did it in the 1994 and 1995 conference semifinals against Phoenix en route to championships.

After a pair of 10-point victories over Los Angeles to begin the series, the Spurs had a 17-game winning streak and the Lakers appeared to be in big trouble. Little did anyone know the Spurs wouldn't win again this season.

"We knew that if we did what we're supposed to do, that we'd be fine," O'Neal said. "When we play hard and play with kind a lot of passion and when you believe like that, anything can happen."

Gary Payton, who along with Karl Malone joined the Lakers this season in search of his first championship ring, had 15 points and seven assists.

Bryant also had seven assists to go with seven rebounds for the Lakers, who shot 44.6 percent and won despite being outrebounded, 49-39.

Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but shot just 7 of 18. Manu Ginobili added 16 points, Devin Brown had 15, and Robert Horry scored 12.

"They adjusted their game plan and it worked for them," Duncan said. "We didn't shoot the ball as well as we could have."

About the Lakers' defense, Duncan said: "It's tough because Shaq's back there, that's a big part of it. You can get by them at points. Having Shaq back there as a safety really causes some problems. It was a very good defensive scheme, more than anything."

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