INDIANAPOLIS -- A star became a superstar, a kid became a man.
Kobe Bryant is legit, and he proved it on the NBA's biggest stage.
In a performance that validated all his hype, Bryant -- bum ankle and all -- came to his team's rescue after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out in overtime. Bryant made three of the most clutch shots of his young career to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 120-118 victory over the Indiana Pacers and a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
''This is the game you dream about as you're growing up,'' Bryant said. ''You lose yourself in the moment. You're consumed by the game.''
This was sweeter than any dream. This was reality, and Bryant owned it by making great plays at big moments, especially in the extra period, and showing an uncanny calmness for a 21-year-old -- all while playing on a ''throbbing'' ankle that had kept him out of most of Game 2 and all of Game 3.
Two of the shots were straightaway jumpers to restore three-point leads; the last was a reverse layup putback of a miss by Brian Shaw with 5.9 seconds left.
''Kobe smelled it at the end of the game,'' coach Phil Jackson said, ''and lifted us.''
The Pacers had a chance to win it after that, but Reggie Miller -- after scoring 35 points -- couldn't get an open 3-pointer to drop from the right elbow of the 3-point line.
Robert Horry got the slightest piece of the ball, and Miller had to change his trajectory as Horry ran toward him.
Of all the stuff that has made Bryant a star -- the slam dunk title, the numerous commercial endorsements, the girls who go gah-gah in his presence -- the only thing missing was a heroic basketball story to make it all matter.
And this was the night for it to happen as Bryant had 28 points in 47 minutes to give the Lakers the victory in what was easily the best game of the series.
''In our mind this was the championship, so we came out with effort,'' Bryant said. ''We wanted to keep it close and then make a run.
''We'd score, they'd come back and score, we'd score, they'd score. You could get mad because our defense was lacking, but at the same time it was fun. This is the type of thing you watch growing up -- the ultimate, the NBA Finals,'' Bryant said.
O'Neal added 36 points and 21 rebounds, making 10 of 17 free throws, and Horry scored 17 off the bench for Los Angeles, which shot 52 percent from the field.
''We let one get away, so we came in with a conscious effort to get this one, and we did,'' O'Neal said.
Miller scored 19 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Rik Smits added 24 and Jalen Rose had 14 for the Pacers.
O'Neal had a chance to win it in regulation but missed an 8-foot jump hook at the buzzer after Travis Best had shot an airball on Indiana's final possession of the fourth quarter.
It went into overtime tied 104-104, and the Lakers scored six of the next eight points.
Miller then hit a fallaway 3-pointer, O'Neal had a layup, and O'Neal then went over Smits' back to pick up his sixth foul with 2:33 left.
Jackson stood with his mouth agape, staring at referee Steve Javie, who called the sixth foul, and the Pacers immediately got the ball to Smits for a jump hook.
Bryant calmly answered with a 23-footer to give the Lakers a 114-111 lead.
''I just relaxed like I was playing in the back yard,'' Bryant said.
Smits rolled in another jump hook and again Bryant answered with a long jumper. Miller made two from the line and Glen Rice tossed up a short airball at the other end -- an airball that landed right in the hands of Shaw for a chippy that made it 118-115.
Smits made two from the line with 28.1 seconds left, and Bryant rebounded Shaw's miss and converted it with 5.9 seconds left.
''That was big-time tonight,'' Rice said ''That had to be the biggest performance since I've been watching and playing with him, of his career. He stepped up like a veteran. That just goes to show how much he's matured.''
The Pacers scored one more point on a foul shot after the Lakers committed a foul before the ball was inbounded, but Miller's last-gasp attempt hit the front of the rim and bounced over the backboard as the final buzzer sounded.
Now the Pacers must try to become the first team ever to recover from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. Game 5 is Friday night.
''We've got a little bit of pulse left in the heart,'' Miller said.
In the fourth quarter, Sam Perkins hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 35 seconds left, and Horry threw a horrible entry pass to Rice, missing him by five feet, to give the ball back to Indiana with 17.4 seconds left. Jackson gazed angrily at Horry as he walked back to the bench for a timeout.
The Pacers then ran a pick-and-roll and got Best isolated one-on-one against O'Neal, and Best had a clear look at a fadeaway from 14 feet. It hit nothing but air, however.
''I thought he was going to go by him,'' Horry said, ''but he did what you should never try to do -- try to shoot over Shaq.''
That gave the Lakers the ball back with 2.3 seconds left for the last shot -- an 8-foot hook shot by O'Neal that was no good and sent the game into overtime -- the first overtime in an NBA Finals since Game 1 of the Chicago-Utah series in 1998.
Smits came out strong and hit his first four shots as Indiana started 8-for-10. With Davis and Perkins providing excellent defense on O'Neal, the Pacers steadily pulled ahead and took a 33-23 lead into the second quarter.
O'Neal picked up his third foul with 4:58 left in the second quarter, and Jackson took a risk by leaving him in. It paid off, too, as O'Neal had two dunks and a short jumper to account for the Lakers' next three baskets as they cut the deficit to three.
Bryant picked up his fourth foul just one minute into the third quarter, and again Jackson decided to take a risk and leave him in. Again the move paid off as Bryant hit the Lakers' next three shots.
A 3-pointer by Rice gave Los Angeles its first lead of the night, 62-60 with 7:59 left in the third, and Bryant drove around Miller for a dunk that gave Los Angeles a 73-70 lead. The Lakers stayed ahead for the rest of the quarter with Bryant scoring 10 in the third, and carried an 80-77 lead into the fourth.
Perkins hit a 3-pointer to give Indiana an 89-84 lead with 7:44 left, and O'Neal picked up his fifth foul with 7:32 left.
There were five lead changes and one tie over the next four minutes as the Lakers repeatedly went to O'Neal and Bryant while the Pacers looked to Miller and Best for offense.
Miller made his fifth straight shot of the fourth quarter, a 3-pointer with 3:17 left for a 101-99 lead, but that would be Indiana's last basket until Perkins' 3 with 35 seconds left.
Notes: After making 25 straight free throws in this series, Miller finally missed one late in the second quarter. ... The Pacers have been complaining that O'Neal routinely commits 3-second violations, criticism which Jackson called ''typical Indiana stuff.'' Are the Pacers whiners, coach Larry Bird was asked? ''Well, sometimes. Yeah, we like to whine. But we like to win, also,'' Bird said. The first whistle of the game was for a 3-second violation on O'Neal.
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