Bryant took over in the pivotal third quarter and finished with 34 points Thursday night, with O’Neal adding 32 as the Lakers defeated the Kings 117-104 in the teams’ final regular-season meeting.
If the teams meet again, it’ll be in the playoffs. And lingering in the Kings’ minds will be the memory of the Lakers outworking, outhustling and outplaying them to salvage a 2-2 split of the season series.
“This is a team we’re going to have to meet in the playoffs, and they have to know and they have to understand that it’s not going to be easy,” O’Neal said.
The difference in the teams’ energy and confidence levels was palpable, especially in the second half.
When the Lakers began to seize the momentum, they did so decisively.
And when the Kings saw the game getting away from them, they couldn’t find a way to slow down the Lakers.
“I’m not going to make too much out of this ballgame because I didn’t think Sacramento had as much to play for, and that showed out on the floor,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We’re starting to play with the passion I’ve been asking them for.”
Bryant did some of his most impressive work as the Lakers were taking over in the third quarter, outscoring the Kings 35-26. He scored 12 in the period, many on difficult jumpers while being defended by Jim Jackson, as Los Angeles took an 89-79 lead into the fourth.
Bryant completely embarrassed Jackson two minutes into the fourth quarter, going around him with a lightning-quick move for a thunderous dunk that put Los Angeles ahead 97-81.
“I don’t put stock in it either way,” said Kings coach Rick Adelman, whose team has already clinched the Pacific Division. “When we play these guys, it’s always going to be an interesting game. They won, but it’s not going to affect anything.”
The double-digit lead held up for most of the rest of the game, with Fisher sealing the win by making a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 2:01 remaining for a 113-99 lead.
Los Angeles won its sixth game in a row overall and its 14th straight at home, while Sacramento had its five-game winning streak snapped.
“For us, it’s taking another step in the right direction. We’re just trying to build that playoff intensity,” Bryant said. “We’re still a work in progress.”
The Lakers have knocked the Kings out of the playoffs the past three seasons. Still, the Kings have gained their respect by playing the Lakers tougher than any opponent during their three-year run as champions.
“It’s not mental with us. We don’t have a mental block when it comes to them. That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Webber said.
But on this night, it was hard to see any mental toughness from the Kings when things slipped away.
Everything started to change near the midpoint of the third quarter, with Sacramento settling for jumper after jumper while the Lakers seized every fast-break opportunity they could. The Kings missed 11 consecutive shots during one stretch, allowing the Lakers to use an 11-0 run to take a 72-61 lead.
“When you play like that against the top teams in the league, you don’t expect to win,” Vlade Divac said.
Neither team led by more than six in a first half that ended with the Lakers ahead 54-53 after Bryant drove through traffic for a difficult layup just two seconds before halftime.
O’Neal had 19 points and eight rebounds at the half, dominating his matchups with Divac, Keon Clark and Scot Pollard. The Kings had similar advantages in the matchups between Webber and Mark Madsen and Bibby vs. Fisher, going tothose players repeatedly when those opportunities could be exploited.
The Kings missed their first 11 3-pointers and finished 1-for-13 from behind the arc. … Bibby went 10-for-10 at the line, extending his streak of made free throws to 51. He broke Oscar Robertson’s franchise record of 41, set in 1964-65. … Jackson spoke with O’Neal about the center’s unexcused absence from practice Wednesday. “No, there wasn’t any shame or remorse,” Jackson said. O’Neal stuck with his story that he had two flat tires caused by potholes on Mulholland Drive. “I don’t have spares and I don’t have Triple-A,” he said. O’Neal said he does not know what happened to the broken-down sports utility vehicle after he got the two flat tires, claiming he simply walked awayfrom it. Bryant’s take on the episode: “I thought I saw him hitchhiking.”