LOS ANGELES, May 11 (UPI) -- Missing their head coach and with their three-year string of success in danger of being halted, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers responded with a championship effort Sunday to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, 99-95.
Bryant and O'Neal came up big down the stretch on both offense and defense as the Lakers evened their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series at two games apiece.
Trailing by as many as 16 points late in the second quarter and by 10 points midway through the third, the Lakers were on the verge of falling behind by two games to the top-seeded Spurs.
But O'Neal, a traditionally poor free-throw shooter, tied the game by making two foul shots with 1:17 left. The All-Star center then stole a pass by Tim Duncan intended for Stephen Jackson in the paint with a minute remaining and Bryant sank one of two free throws 12 seconds later to put the Lakers ahead for good.
On the Spurs' ensuing possession, Duncan dribbled the ball off his foot but dived on the floor kicked it out to Jackson on the perimeter. Jackson, however, missed a three-point attempt as the shot clock wound down, giving the Lakers the ball with 24 seconds left.
"Tim slipped," Jackson said. "Their defense didn't have anything. That forced us to take a bad shot. That's it. We've worked so hard to win this game. We let it get away at the end."
Tony Parker, Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen attempted to foul Derek Fisher but none was called, allowing the Lakers to take 10 seconds off the clock before Bryant was fouled. He sank two free throws to give the Lakers a 98-95 lead with 14 seconds left, forcing the Spurs to take a timeout.
Bryant then intercepted Parker's terrible inbound pass to Manu Ginobili, and he hit one of two free throws to cap the scoring with 11 seconds left.
"It was a bad decision," Parker said of his pass, which came just before the Spurs would have been whistled for a five-second violation. "Maybe I was in too great of a hurry."
"I try to conserve myself at the offensive end," Bryant said. "I never rest on the defensive end."
"Obviously, Kobe did a great job getting to the hole and getting some calls and making free throws," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "Shaq did a great job tonight on the line and made his free throws and we didn't finish as well."
"Defensively I thought we were pretty solid," Duncan said. "(But) 45 free throws. There is not much you can do about that when they get 20 more free throws than you."
Bryant finished with 35 points and O'Neal had 29 and 17 rebounds, Los Angeles shot just 39 percent but made 35 of 45 free throws. Bryant went 14 of 17 from the stripe and O'Neal a surprising 17 of 23.
The Lakers were missing Coach Phil Jackson, who was resting after undergoing an angioplasty on Saturday to clear 90 percent blockage in an artery. Assistant Jim Cleamons, a longtime assistant under Jackson, coached the Lakers Sunday.
"I think Cleamons did a wonderful job," O'Neal said. "He told everybody to stay involved and I think we did that. He did a good job."
It was not known if Jackson will be cleared to travel to San Antonio for Game 5 on Tuesday night as the Lakers continue their bid for a fourth straight NBA title. Jackson has won nine championships, tying the legendary Red Auerbach atop the all-time list. His playoff record of 159-58 is the best in NBA history.
"We have encountered so many different challenges this year," Bryant said. "We just look at (Jackson's absence) as another obstacle. We thrive in these types of situations."
Duncan contributed 36 points and nine rebounds for the Spurs, who led by 43-27 with just under four minutes left in the first half. But Duncan went to the bench after acquiring a third foul with 3:27 left, seven seconds after Bryant also was whistled for a third foul, and Los Angeles pulled within 46-39 at the half.
The Lakers trailed by 64-55 with 3:10 to play in the third quarter before closing the period on a 16-3 run after Duncan picked up his fourth foul. Neither team led by more than four points in the fourth quarter.
Duncan scored 13 points during a 21-4 Spurs run bridging the first and second quarters, giving San Antonio a 38-23 lead with 6:25 left in the half.
Fisher countered with a three-pointer with 5:30 to play in the period for the first points scored by a Laker other than Bryant or O'Neal.
"I kept writing on Phil's pad to move the ball and pass the ball and cut and try to do things to try to break down their good pressure, and obviously my pen does not work as well as his does," Cleamons said. "But the fact remains that somewhere down the line we got some points from Fisher, which helped and took the pressure off of Kobe and Shaq and their thinking that they have to go out and do everything."
Jackson gave the Spurs their biggest lead, 43-27, with 3:54 remaining before the break, but Duncan soon picked up his third foul and the momentum of the game changed.
"Those guys really switched it up," Duncan said. "I thought they did a great job of (it). Everyone just tried to give me a different look and I think that is what they were going for."
"My hat goes off to my teammates," O'Neal said. "We kept fighting. They did a wonderful job of just keep on fighting, fighting, fighting. Guys were diving on the floor, fighting for loose balls, hitting shots, playing team ball. If we keep playing like that, I think we'll be fine."
Jackson totaled 15 points, Parker 14 and the reserve Ginobili 13 for the Spurs, but starting center David Robinson was manhandled by O'Neal, fouling out with no points and three rebounds with 7:13 to play in the contest.
"I can't put into words how frustrating it is to lose this game," Jackson said.