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On this date: Kobe Bryant comes up clutch versus Trail Blazers

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The 2000 Western Conference Finals was a showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers that many had anticipated for months.

As one Los Angeles-area newspaper headline put it, it was a battle between “Two Deep,” meaning the Lakers’ duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and “Too Deep,” which referred to the fact that the Blazers had several bench players who would’ve likely started on many other teams.

To put it another way, L.A. coach Phil Jackson called the Blazers “The best team money can buy.”

Critics complained that Portland was merely a collection of talent that had no leader or superstar, not Scottie Pippen, the do-everything Michael Jordan sidekick who was too mentally weak, nor Rasheed Wallace, the mercurial power forward whom most felt had superstar talent but not the self-discipline or desire.

Yet, the Blazers had tied the series 1-1 headed back to Oregon.

Heading into Game 3, the Lakers seemed to be in some trouble. To that point, an O’Neal-led team had never won a road game in the conference finals or the NBA Finals, and the big man had yet to prove that he was a winner or that he could win a big playoff game.

The Blazers had the personnel to hold him in check, and they held the Lakers in check early in Game 3, taking an early 15-2 lead.

If it weren’t for Bryant getting hot, L.A. may have gotten blown out, as it did at home in Game 2 by 29 points.

But with his help, it fought back and turned a 10-point halftime deficit into a tug of war in the fourth quarter.

With the score tied at 91 and less than a minute left, Bryant was setting up the Lakers’ offense up top while guarded by Pippen, one of the game’s greatest defenders ever.

The guard took a few dribbles to his left, encountered a double-team near the free-throw line and picked up his dribble.

One may have expected him to force up a shot and try to be the hero, but he instead calmly fired a pass to teammate Ron Harper, who was open in the left corner and hit a jumper to put L.A. up by two.

Portland had a chance to tie or win with 29 seconds left, but Bryant stripped the ball from Wallace. Glen Rice subsequently picked it up, only to turn it over, giving the Blazers one final chance.

Center Arvydas Sabonis wheeled to the rim, looking to force overtime, but Bryant cleanly blocked his shot just before the horn, giving the Lakers a 93-91 win and a 2-1 series lead.

Bryant finished with 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

This was one of the first times he came up clutch in a big playoff game, but it wouldn’t exactly be the last.

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