PHOENIX (Reuters) - An inspirational Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers booked their place in the NBA Finals by beating the Phoenix Suns 111-103 in Game Six on Saturday to win the Western Conference championship series 4-2.
All-Star guard Bryant top scored for Los Angeles with 37 points on 12-for-25 shooting from the field while forward Ron Artest weighed in with 25 points and veteran Derek Fisher 11.
Amar'e Stoudemire contributed 27 points for the Suns, who clawed their way back from an 18-point deficit in the second half to trail by just three with two minutes remaining.
"With a three-point shooting team like Phoenix, you know that any lead is not impossible," Lakers coach Phil Jackson told reporters. "As they showed, we have an 18-point lead and they're right back in the game in a matter of minutes."
The Lakers will host the Celtics for Game One of the NBA Finals on Thursday, the 12th time the arch-rivals will face off in the championship series.
"We will see how much we have matured," Bryant said. "They challenged us extremely well in the finals a couple of years ago. Now it's a test to see how much we've grown."
Saturday's game began at a frenetic pace and, with both teams shooting accurately, there were eight lead changes before the Lakers grabbed a 37-34 advantage after the first quarter.
With the in-form Artest and Bryant making shots from all angles, the Lakers stretched their lead to as much as 18 before ending the third quarter 91-74 up.
An emotional flashpoint early in the final period came close to changing the game's outcome.
Lakers reserve guard Sasha Vujacic was slapped with a flagrant foul for elbowing Goran Dragic after his fellow Slovenian had provoked him after making a two-point jump shot.
Dragic took full advantage, scoring with successive free throws and back-to-back layups to give the Suns an unanswered 8-0 run before they cut the deficit to 95-90 with 5:35 left.
An uncontested drive to the basket for a reverse layup by Steve Nash trimmed the Lakers' lead to 99-96 before Bryant steadied his team with two free throws and a pair of long-range jump shots in the last two minutes.
The last of his jumpers was executed from 23 feet with Suns forward Grant Hill in his face, one of several shots on the night that drew high praise from Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry.
"Was that Kobe or was that Michael (Jordan)?" Gentry said with a broad smile. "I couldn't tell. That was a great performance. We did everything we possibly could.
"We played great defense on him. He single-handedly got them over the hump. We just played the best player in basketball. To me, he's an assassin. He makes every tough shot and every big play for them." (Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Rutherford)