LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers dispatched the defending champions and are headed to the NBA finals for the first time in four years.
Bryant scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied from an early 17-point deficit to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 100-92, last night and win the Western Conference finals in five games.
The Lakers are 12-3 in the playoffs, including 8-0 at Staples Center, where they have not lost in two months. They have won 14 straight home games and 21 of their last 24 postseason games at home.
They get a week off before opening the NBA finals Thursday night at Boston or Detroit. The Celtics lead the Eastern Conference finals, 3-2, with Game 6 tonight.
A basket by Lamar Odom gave the Lakers an 83-76 lead with 5 minutes, 40 seconds remaining, but a three-pointer by Brent Barry and a basket by Tony Parker drew the Spurs within two points. Manu Ginobili missed a three-pointer that could have given San Antonio the lead before Bryant's jumper with 3:33 to play made the score 85-81.
A foul shot by Tim Duncan drew the Spurs within three, but two more baskets by Bryant made the score 89-82 with 1:47 to play, and the Spurs got no closer than five points after that.
Odom added 13 points and eight rebounds, and Pau Gasol had 12 points, a career playoff-high 19 rebounds, and five assists for the Lakers.
Parker scored 23 points and Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists for the Spurs. Michael Finley scored 13 points, Barry and Kurt Thomas added 11 each and Ginobili was held to nine points, shooting just 3 for 9.
The Lakers clinched their berth in the finals a year to the day after Bryant called the team's front office "a mess" during a radio interview. A day later, he demanded a trade, ultimately saying he preferred playing on Pluto rather than returning to the team he joined as an 18-year-old from Lower Merion High School in 1996.
The situation calmed down until Lakers owner Jerry Buss told reporters during training camp in October he was listening to offers for Bryant, angering the superstar once again.
But once the season began, Bryant bonded with his teammates, led the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in the rugged West and won his first MVP award.
Collins considers Bulls job.
Former Sixer Doug Collins, who guided the Chicago Bulls and a young Michael Jordan from 1986 to 1989 but couldn't get them past Detroit in the playoffs, has talked with the team about returning as coach.
Collins confirmed that he had spoken to Bulls management, but he said the conversation would not resume until he finishes working the Western Conference finals for TNT.
"There is no agreement in place," Collins said in a statement yesterday from Los Angeles, where he was to work Game 5 of the Spurs-Lakers series.
During a pre-game interview on TNT, Collins said he talked with both Bulls general manager John Paxson and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
"I have not been offered [the job]. I have not accepted," Collins said.
"Jerry Reinsdorf has been a friend of mine the last 20 years, so he and I have spoken on a lot of occasions over the last 20 years . . . The whole thing is, there's interest on both sides."