LOS ANGELES Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers dispatched the defending champions and are headed to the NBA finals for the first time in four years.
Bryant scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied from an early 17-point deficit to beat the San Antonio Spurs 100-92 on Thursday night and win the Western Conference finals in five games.
The Lakers are 12-3 in the playoffs, including 8-0 at Staples Center, where they haven't lost in two months. They have won 14 straight home games and 21 of their last 24 postseason games at home.
They get a week off before opening the NBA finals next Thursday night at Boston or Detroit. The Celtics lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-2 with Game 6 on Friday night.
A basket by Lamar Odom gave the Lakers an 83-76 lead with 5:40 remaining, but a 3-pointer by Brent Barry and a basket by Tony Parker drew the Spurs within two points. Manu Ginobili missed a 3-pointer that could have given San Antonio the lead before Bryant's jumper with 3:33 to play made it 85-81.
A foul shot by Duncan drew the Spurs within three, but two more baskets by Bryant made it 89-82 with 1:47 to play, and the Spurs weren't closer than five points after that.
Odom added 13 points and eight rebounds, while Pau Gasol had 12 points, a career playoff-high 19 rebounds and five assists for the Lakers.
Parker scored 23 points and Tim Duncan had 19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists for the Spurs. Michael Finley scored 13 points, Barry and Kurt Thomas added 11 each and Ginobili was held to nine, shooting just 3-for-9.
The Lakers clinched their berth in the finals a year to the day after Bryant called the team's front office "a mess" during a radio interview. A day later, he demanded a trade, ultimately saying he preferred playing on Pluto rather than returning to the team he joined as an 18-year-old in 1996.
The situation calmed down until Lakers owner Jerry Buss told reporters during training camp in October he was listening to offers for Bryant, angering the superstar once again.
But once the season began, Bryant bonded with his teammates, led the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in the rugged West and won his first MVP award.
The Lakers will be playing in the finals for the 23rd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1961 and the 29th time overall. They have won 14 championships nine in Los Angeles and five in Minneapolis.
The Lakers and the Celtics have met 10 times in the finals, with Boston winning the first eight matchups and Los Angeles the last two in 1985 and 1987. That's the last time the Celtics advanced to the championship round.
The Lakers and Pistons have met three times in the finals, most recently in 2004, when Detroit won in five games. Shaquille O'Neal, who teamed with Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight championships starting in 2000, was traded a month later, and the Lakers hadn't won a postseason series since until last month.
San Antonio's elimination might signal the end of its era of dominance. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs won championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, but with a rotation made up solely of thirtysomething players except for the 26-year-old Parker, the future seems uncertain.
Meanwhile, starting guard Derek Fisher and seldom-used reserve Ira Newble are the only players on the Los Angeles roster over 30.
Ultimately, it was the Lakers' youth, quickness and athleticism that determined this series. The turning point occurred in Game 1, when the Spurs took a 20-point third-quarter lead before the Lakers outscored them 44-20 for an 89-85 victory.
San Antonio had a shot in Game 4, but the Lakers held on for a 93-91 victory that put the Spurs on the brink of elimination. And that came Thursday night.
A 3-pointer by Luke Walton and baskets by Jordan Farmar and Bryant gave the Lakers a 74-68 lead with 8 1/2 minutes remaining, and they were on top the rest of the way.
The Spurs led by as many as 10 points early in the third quarter, but the Lakers turned up their defensive intensity during a 19-8 run that gave them a 61-60 lead their first since the opening minute. Bryant scored nine points during the spurt. Los Angeles led 64-63 entering the final period.
The Spurs got 3-pointers from Finley, Ginobili and Barry during a 15-1 run that gave them a 33-16 lead early in the second quarter. The Lakers went nearly 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal until Farmar scored three straight baskets to trim San Antonio's lead to 11.
It was 46-31 before the Lakers went on an 11-2 run to finish the second quarter, cutting the Spurs' lead to 48-42.
NOTES: Only eight teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. The Spurs are now 0-7 in such situations ... Phoenix was the last NBA team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series, accomplishing the feat against the Lakers two years ago in the first round ... Bryant attempted only 11 free throws in this series after attempting 96 against Utah ... Ginobili, who turns 31 in July, and Duncan, who turned 32 last month, can hardly be classified as old in NBA circles. But Robert Horry is almost 38, Bruce Bowen is nearly 37, Barry is 36 and Finley and Thomas are both 35.