LOS ANGELES — The Lakers completed an improbable comeback Saturday night, sending the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs home for the summer.
Exactly a year earlier, it was the Spurs celebrating a Western Conference semifinal triumph on the same court to end the tearful Lakers’ quest for a fourth straight title.
Kobe Bryant scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and Shaquille O’Neal had 17 points, 19 rebounds and five blocked shots as the Lakers beat the Spurs 88-76 to win the conference semifinals in six games.
“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 Lakers will face the winner of the Minnesota-Sacramento series in the conference finals. The Timberwolves lead 3-2 entering Game 6 today in Sacramento.
The Lakers became the eighth team in NBA history to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first two games. The last team to accomplish such a feat was Houston, which did it in both the 1994 and 1995 conference semifinals against Phoenix en route to championships.
“We’re on a mission,” O’Neal said.
After a pair of 10-point victories over the Lakers 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.
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.
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.
Tony Parker, so outstanding in the first two games, shot 4 of 18 in scoring nine points and had only three assists.
The Spurs shot just 30.2 percent to the Lakers’ 44.6 percent, making moot a 49-39 rebounding advantage.
“We’ve been an inconsistent shooting team all season, but we haven’t been this bad, so you have to give their defense credit,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Brown scored six straight points to give the Spurs a 58-57 lead early in the fourth quarter. But two free throws by Bryant, a 3-pointer by Derek Fisher and a foul shot by Malone put the Lakers on top by five, and they were on top the rest of the way.
It was 74-68 with 3:39 remaining when the Spurs intentionally fouled O’Neal. He foiled the strategy by making two free throws.
O’Neal would make two more with 2:48 left after another intentional foul to give the Lakers a 79-70 lead, and Bryant’s flying dunk with 1:52 remaining added an exclamation point.
The Lakers made 19 of 30 free throws in the fourth quarter to hold off the Spurs.
Outscored 139-93 in the third quarter in the first five games of the series, the Spurs had their problems again, shooting a miserable 3 for 23 in the third period of this game.
But they were only outscored by four points because they got seven offensive rebounds and made seven free throws. That left the Lakers with a 56-52 lead entering the final period.
Bryant’s first two baskets, the second an acrobatic, over-the-head shot following one of San Antonio’s 10 first-half turnovers, gave the Lakers a 16-8 lead.
Then, with Duncan scoring seven points and Brown and Horry adding five each, the Spurs outscored the Lakers 21-7 to put them on top 29-23.
It was 39-all at halftime.
Fisher, whose 18-foot buzzer-beating jumper gave the Lakers a 74-73 victory in Game 5, received a standing ovation from the Staples Center crowd when he entered this game for the first time late in the first quarter. He scored nine points.
Parker celebrates his 22nd birthday Monday. He has the most assists and second-most points for a player under 22 in NBA playoff history. Bryant ranks first in points and third in assists. … Malone and Duncan exchanged words and were called for a double-technical late in the second quarter, and Payton got one early in the third period. … The Lakers extended their closeout winning streak 11 games. … The Lakers are 19-1 after leading a playoff series 3-2. The only time they’ve lost in such a situation was to the Boston Celtics in the 1969 NBA Finals.