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Lakers 104, Spurs 90
Kobe Seals Sweet 16

SAN ANTONIO, May 19 (AP) -- Shaquille O'Neal has been convinced. Kobe Bryant is the best.

"I told Kobe that he was my idol," O'Neal said. "I'm serious. He's playing phenomenal. I think he's the best player in the league, by far."

With his take-your-breath-away moves and long-range daggers, Bryant stole San Antonio's home-court advantage in a hurry in the Western Conference Finals.

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Kobe Bryant exploded for 45 points Saturday.
Robert Mora/NBAE Photos
NBA.com TV highlights: 28.8+ | ISDN+
Kobe highlights: 28.8+ | ISDN+
He scored 45 points on 19-for-35 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Spurs 104-90 Saturday in Game 1.

Shaquille O'Neal added 28 points, 14 rebounds and six assists as the Lakers won their 16th in a row -- eighth in the playoffs. He even made six of eight free throws.

Game 2 is Monday night in the first showdown between the past two NBA champions in a conference final since 1985.

"This team is hungry," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

Bryant fell just three points short of his career playoff high of 48 set in his last game, the series clincher against Sacramento. It was the most points ever against San Antonio in a playoff game, surpassing the 43 Hakeem Olajuwon scored for Houston in the 1995 conference finals.

Bryant tried to deflect the praise to Shaq.

"I don't know man," Bryant said. "I'm just a little guard. I try to steal some of his post moves, but they don't seem to have the same powerful effect as when he does it."

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Kobe Bryant lays it in over the defender on the fast break:
1034k avi | QuickTime
Bryant didn't think he was in any particular zone, but was only trying to take what the Spurs were giving him.

"You really have to pick your spots with those two big guys down there," he said. "It's a lot of work, and a lot of preparation.

With 93 points in consecutive games, Bryant was drawing a comparison with the greatest big-game player ever -- Michael Jordan.

Horace Grant kept referring to Bryant as "No. 23," the number Jordan wore. It wasn't a mistake.

"I knew what I was saying," Grant said.

O'Neal said it wasn't the points but the way Bryant scored them that was so impressive.

"That's where I've been trying to get him all year," O'Neal said. "He's been getting his points, getting everybody involved, drawing and kicking, doing the right things. Somebody once said the mark of a great player is how you make the other players around you play. I now can truly say that Kobe Bryant is the best player in this league."

O'Neal and Bryant might have feuded in the regular season, but they blended like Beach Boys harmony in this one. When one would misfire, the other took over.

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David Robinson goes strong to the hole, puts up a shot, and goes back up to tip it in:
997k avi | QuickTime
Bryant, who averaged 37.7 points against the Spurs in the regular season, was even tougher this time, maybe because San Antonio is without Derek Anderson.

When Bryant wasn't scoring, he was finding O'Neal inside.

Tim Duncan had 28 points and 14 rebound, and David Robinson 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs, who lost at home for the first time in the playoffs. Antonio Daniels scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half for San Antonio, which at 58-24 had the best regular-season record in the NBA, two games ahead of Los Angeles.

But frustrated by the Lakers' defense, the Spurs misfired from long range, especially early in the game, and committed an uncharacteristic 11 first-half turnovers.

"We had open looks at the basket. We were missing shots that we normally make," Robinson said. "We were turning the ball over. You throw the ball right to the other guy, what are you doing? That's not the way we play basketball."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles' role players came through. Derek Fisher made three of four 3-pointers and scored 13 points.

Los Angeles led throughout after a 13-1 run in the first quarter. They were up by 16 three times in the third quarter.

"I thought we were sloppy," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said, "more than I've seen us in three months. You have to give the Lakers credit for their aggressiveness. Be that as it may, I was really disappointed in our mental errors, some we haven't made in a very, very long time."

Duncan and Daniels tried to bring San Antonio back in the fourth. The Spurs cut the lead to nine twice.

Duncan's three-point play cut it to 86-77 with 5:37 to play and San Antonio had a chance to get closer. But the Spurs missed, Duncan lost the ball out of bounds and Horry sank a 3-pointer to make it 89-77 with 5:15 to play.

Bryant's only 3-pointer -- in two attempts -- put Los Angeles up 96-81 with 3:20 to play. San Antonio scored six straight to cut it to 96-87 with two minutes remaining. But O'Neal made two free throws and Horry one of two to put it out of reach.

"We handled everything they threw at us," Rick Fox said. "We had stretches where we needed a shot, and we got it."

Anderson, who would have defended Bryant, is out with a separated shoulder, the result of a flagrant foul by Juwan Howard in the first game of San Antonio's second-round series against Dallas. Anderson might be back by Game 3.

For now, Daniels or Sean Elliott must defend Bryant. It was a mismatch either way.

O'Neal, a high school star in San Antonio, was greeted by a resounding chorus of boos from the Alamodome crowd of 36,068. The reaction was triggered by O'Neal's derisive comments in his autobiography about Robinson.

The crowd also had it in for Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson, who has suggested that the Spurs' 1999 title carry an asterisk because it was a 50-game season. .

Notes: The San Antonio Express-News commissioned a computerized simulation of the series. The Lakers won in six games. ... The Spurs have won six consecutive series with Duncan in the lineup. ... Fisher drew his second foul with 6:19 left in the first quarter, but Jackson left him in. He never did draw his third. ... The Spurs, who shot 42 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs, were 5-for-15 (33 percent) in this one. Daniels and Terry Porter both were 1-for-5. The Lakers made 7-of-14 3-pointers. ... Duncan and Robinson scored all but two of the Spurs' 17 points in the first quarter.

 
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