Sunday , Apr , 18 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Shaq’s late dunk gives Lakers dramatic Game 1 win

Los Angeles, CA (Sports Network) – Shaquille O’Neal scored the go-ahead basket
on a two-handed dunk with 16.4 seconds remaining to lead the Los Angeles
Lakers to a 72-71 win over the Houston Rockets in a defensive struggle in Game
1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series at the Staples Center.

O’Neal ended with 20 points and 17 rebounds for the second-seeded Lakers, who
won the Pacific Division title in miraculous fashion after Kobe Bryant drained
a game-winning three-pointer in double overtime against Portland in the
regular-season finale. O’Neal was 8-of-17 from the field, but just 4-of-14
from the foul line.

The division crown was Los Angeles’ first since the 1999-2000 season.

Bryant added 16 points, six assists, five rebounds and five steals for the
Lakers, who are in search of their fourth championship in the past five years.

Los Angeles will host Game 2 of the best-of-seven series Monday night.

Steve Francis had 18 points and Jim Jackson contributed 11 points and 12
boards for the seventh-seeded Rockets, who are in the playoffs for the first
time since the 1998-99 campaign when the club was defeated by the Lakers 3-1
in the first round.

“They made one more play than we did tonight,” Houston head coach Jeff Van
Gundy said.

Houston led 71-69 late in the game and, after each team missed a shot, O’Neal
was fouled when grabbing a rebound with 1 1/2 minutes remaining. O’Neal made
1-of-2 to trim the gap to 71-70. The Lakers then forced a turnover on the
ensuing possession, but Karl Malone missed a baseline jumper with 1:02 left.

The Rockets ran the clock down before Maurice Taylor missed a layup with just
over 40 seconds left. LA got the rebound and took over down one, but Bryant
missed a fadeaway three-pointer with 20 seconds left.

However, O’Neal grabbed the board and he immediately threw down a two-handed
dunk and was also fouled by Yao Ming on the play. The free throw missed, but
the Lakers went ahead 72-71 with 16.4 seconds remaining.

“I just wanted to get it up quick and go strong,” O’Neal said.

The Rockets had a chance to win the game, but Jackson’s three-pointer from the
left corner bounced off the back rim as time was running out and O’Neal
grabbed the miss just as the buzzer sounded to conclude the game.

“It was a tough game,” said Bryant. “It was kind of going back and forth. We
just had to make sure we maintained our composure and we came up with a big
play down there at the end.”

Houston led 51-49 after three defensive quarters, but the Lakers began the
fourth on a 9-4 run, capped by Kareem Rush’s three-pointer, to claim a 58-55
edge. Los Angeles increased its lead to 63-59 moments later, but Jackson’s
three-pointer with 4:48 left in the game capped a 5-0 spurt and put Houston in
front by one.

Los Angeles, though, scored four straight points, capped by a pair of Bryant
free throws, to regain the lead at 67-64 with 3:59 remaining. After each team
then hit a pair from the charity stripe, the Lakers held a 69-66 edge.

Francis hit one free throw to bring his club within two with 3:02 left and
after a Bryant miss, the Rockets tied the game at 69-69 on Taylor’s basket.
O’Neal was then fouled and the big center missed both shots.

At the other end, Francis drove the lane, but was fouled hard by O’Neal.
Francis, though, was able to convert his free throws and after both went down,
Houston led 71-69 with 2:02 remaining, which set up the dramatic finish.

The Lakers jumped out to an 8-0 lead as O’Neal’s free throw with 8:13 left in
the first quarter capped the quick start. Houston hung around and eventually
closed within 16-14 on Kelvin Cato’s basket with just over three minutes left
in the period. Los Angeles led 20-18 after one.

Gary Payton’s two free throws with 4:35 left in the second stretched the
advantage to 33-25, but the Rockets trimmed the gap to 35-32 on Francis’
jumper moments later. The Lakers eventually carried a 40-34 advantage into the
intermission.

O’Neal had 16 points and eight rebounds, while Francis paced Houston with
seven points in the opening 24 minutes.

Francis’ field goal with 6:05 left in the third tied the score at 42 apiece
and Houston eventually claimed a 46-45 advantage on Francis’ basket with just
over two minutes left in the period. The Rockets led by three moments later
and led 51-49 after 36 minutes.

Houston outscored the Lakers 17-9 in a sloppily-played third quarter that saw
Los Angeles go just 4-of-21 from the field.

Los Angeles shot just 33 percent from the floor for the game (25-of-76), while
the Rockets were not much better as they only made 38 percent of their
attempts (29-of-76).

“That game was misery for us out there,” Los Angeles head coach Phil Jackson
said. “I don’t know if it was their defense or our shooting or a combination
of both. We struggled, in the second half, particularly.”

HOU LAL