Just when they were about to make things interesting, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers blew it.
Unable to stop Dirk Nowitzki all night, and their big lineup too slow to cover the outside shooting of Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry down the stretch, the Lakers lost 98-92 to the Dallas Mavericks on Friday to fall in a 3-0 hole in their second-round series.
All 98 teams in NBA history that have trailed by that margin have wound up losing the series. Thus, the Lakers' two-year reign as NBA champions and their three-year grip on the Western Conference crown, plus the unprecedented coaching career of Phil Jackson, are all on the brink of going kaput -- maybe even with the humiliation of a sweep.
Of all the reasons they're in this predicament, the most stunning is that this pedigreed team has fallen apart when it matters most. They wasted a 16-point lead in Game 1, losing at the buzzer when a 3-pointer by Bryant went in and out, and they failed to hold a seven-point lead with 5:05 left in this game. Dallas rallied with an 18-6 run jump-started by 3s by Nowitzki and Stojakovic.
"We're disappointed," said Jackson, who has never been down 3-0 in a series, much less been swept, in 20 years as an NBA coach. "We feel like Games 1 and 3 we controlled the pace of the games. They were better at finishing the games than we were. But we still believe we're going to win the next game and we'll go from there."
The Mavericks pulled this game out by scoring 32 points in the fourth quarter, the most by either team in any period this series. Bryant said the Lakers helped by making "some of the dumbest defensive mistakes I've seen us make all year."
Bryant is not conceding the series. While he knows the history of NBA teams down 3-0, he also knows that MLB and NHL teams have pulled off this kind of comeback.
"I might be sick in the head or crazy because I think we're still going to win the series," Bryant said. "Win on Sunday, go back home and see if they can win in L.A."
Of course, Nowitzki and the Mavericks have a different idea. They want to get this over with as soon as possible.
For a franchise that's perennially underachieved, and is still trying to overcome blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA finals, ending this series Sunday would send a great message about their chances of winning their first title.
There's a practical reason, too. This veteran-filled club would love to avoid another long round-trip flight and to start resting up for the next series. Dallas would be the home team in the conference finals, regardless of whether Oklahoma City or Memphis advances.
"We're not good enough to relax or take the pedal off the metal," Nowitzki said. "You don't want to ever give a champion life, so hopefully we can have the same effort and the same crowd and a great game on Sunday."
Missing the suspended Ron Artest, Jackson gambled with a starting lineup featuring 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom at small forward, alongside 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Lakers logically pounded the ball inside, and controlled the game nearly the entire second half.
Perhaps Artest's absence caught up to them at the end. Jackson acknowledged "there was some fatigue factor in there." He also admitted that his super-sized lineup was much better protecting the paint than defending the 3-point line.
And there was that Nowitzki fellow.
Dallas' superstar scored 32 points, making 12 of 19 shots. With the Lakers' big guys crowding the lane, he went back to his roots and got comfortable behind the 3-point line, burying 4 of 5. He only took four free throws, but made them all.
"Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of him either scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot, or make a pass for an assist for a 3 or a 2 or whatever it was," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
A record Dallas crowd of 21,156 -- most wearing royal-blue giveaway T-shirts that read, "The Time Is Now," with the Mavs logo in place of the basketball on top of the championship trophy -- went through the usual chants of "De-fense!" and "Beat LA!" without much impact through the first three quarters. With the game on the line, they got to their feet and helped the home team sustain its final push.
Terry scored 23, including some of the points that helped ice the victory in the closing minutes. Stojakovic scored 11 of his 15 in the final quarter. Jason Kidd added 11 points and nine assists.
Bynum had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Odom scored 18 and Bryant scored 17. He had only four points in the final quarter.
Gasol had 12 points and Shannon Brown provided a spark off the bench with 10.
"We're beating ourselves a little bit, not getting a decent shot in the last five minutes of the game," Bynum said.
Los Angeles' meltdown included a play where Bryant threw a pass to Gasol, but Gasol expected him to shoot and was looking at the rim. The ball hit him in the back, creating a turnover plucked by Dallas. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant came up short on a long jumper to beat the shot clock, leading to a pair of free throws by Nowitzki that put the Mavericks ahead for the first time since the final minutes of the first half.
A quick basket by Derek Fisher put Los Angeles back ahead 89-88, then the Mavericks worked the ball to Terry in the corner for a go-ahead 3-pointer. Odom answered with a flick shot over Stojakovic to tie it at 91 with 1:39 left, but that would be it for the Lakers.
Nowitzki made a tough, left-handed hook shot over two defenders, then ran back up the court snarling and with the lead. Odom missed another flick shot over Stojakovic, with defensive help from Tyson Chandler, and Dallas got an extended possession when Chandler reached between two Lakers to knock a rebound to Terry in the corner. The Lakers resorted to fouls and wild shots to try coming back, an ugly way for a team that's been so good for so long to go out -- or, at least, get really close to starting its summer vacation.
"They have a lot of pride over there in that locker room," Nowitzki said. "We've got to take it. They're not going to give it to us."
NOTES: Dallas is 4-0 at home this postseason. ... The trio of Odom, Gasol and Bynum had only been on the court together a total of 2 minutes, 19 seconds all season. ... A 3-pointer by Steve Blake early in the second quarter was the first by the Lakers' bench all series. ... Since the last time the Lakers were swept (1999), they have pulled off seven sweeps. That includes against Kidd and the Nets in the 2002 NBA finals.