The past tugged at them, and the Portland Trail Blazers tugged harder.
They looked weighed down and desperate, and tripped toward failure again.
Then, at the moment of truth, as darkness threatened, Kobe Bryant ran faster, Brian Shaw shot truer, and Shaquille O'Neal jumped higher than anyone could have dreamed, including the Lakers themselves.
The Lakers saw the light ahead of them. They did not fall.
And the Lakers, in one quarter, almost blew up Staples Center in the process.
In the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the third playoff series of the first season of Phil Jackson's Laker coaching lifetime, the Lakers overcame a 15-point deficit, reeled in the Trail Blazers, and won a trip to the NBA finals with a staggering 89-84 victory before 18,997.
It was the biggest Game 7 fourth-quarter comeback in NBA history.
The Lakers, who have not been to the NBA finals since 1991, host Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.
"Yeah, that was a daunting uphill battle that we had to face," Jackson said after it was over. "We made it back."
It was more than daunting, of course.
The first three quarters, after which Portland led, 71-58, were the summation of every responsibility the Lakers had failed to live up to, and every significant victory they had failed to record during the last three seasons.
O'Neal couldn't get the ball. The other Lakers couldn't get it into the basket. The Trail Blazers were whizzing into the lane, and throwing in three-point baskets. Jackson was calling timeouts to yell at his players.
After giving up a basket and two free throws to pump the Portland lead to 75-60 with 10:28 to play, the Lakers stopped Portland 10 consecutive times, began making shots of their own and soon panic turned to hope, surprise and finally euphoria.
"You lose yourself in it," forward Glen Rice said of the explosion, which saw the Lakers outscore the Trail Blazers, 25-4, at one point.
"We were thinking keep going, keep applying the pressure, continue to keep going down on the offensive end and keep getting good shots and hopefully this team will fall in the end.
"And they did."
Said Jackson: "[Game] 7s are interesting games, aren't they? I've never seen one quite like that before, or had a team that I thought had run out of gas as much as I thought they had in the third quarter.
"Portland seemed to strike us for like nine straight possessions."
The Lakers tied the score for the first time in the fourth quarter at 75-75 on Shaw's second three-pointer of the quarter, with four minutes left, capping a 15-0 rocket-burst.
Earlier, Shaw banked in a three-point shot at the end of the third quarter, to narrow what had been a 16-point Portland lead, the largest of the game.
"Any time you can have a guy throw something like that," Rice said of the Shaw shot, "and it goes in off the glass, you've got to realize that things are about to turn around for you."
After Portland scored, O'Neal tied it again with two free throws (he was three for four in the final quarter).
Then a few minutes later, with less than a minute left, Bryant drove into the lane and tossed the ball wildly toward the top of the backboard.
Only, about 15 feet in the air, O'Neal reached up with his right hand and intercepted the ball, as Bryant knew he would, and threw it down thunderously, to give the Lakers an 85-79 lead and nearly break Staples' roof to pieces.
"This was, I think, a building stone for our team," Jackson said.
"Heart and effort," said Bryant, who had 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots, when asked how the Lakers pulled this off.
"They outworked us pretty good in the last couple of games. We didn't want that to happen in the seventh game, particularly on our home floor. We just brought a lot of heart and a lot of energy."
Said Rick Fox, of forcing Portland into 12 straight missed shots: "We did things defensively first, then we knocked down some shots.
"The pressure mounted and shifted towards them, their shots didn't fall."
So the game of the season was the game for the season.
So the fourth quarter was jammed with every burden that possibly could be placed on this team, and it saved the season.
"They're an excellent defensive team, they have been all year," said Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team made only five field goals in the fourth quarter.
"Maybe the pressure, maybe the hands, the extra bumps, everything that goes along with it, maybe it wore us down. Maybe some of our guys were a little bit tired down the stretch."
Said Fox: "It was definitely a borderline wrestling match at times. . . .
"That's the only way we found a way to win. We just got gritty with it."
And what does it feel like to pull off the greatest Game 7 comeback in NBA history?
"It's a spent feeling," said Fox, sprawled in front of his locker. "Because we fought uphill. . . . down 12, 15 points. In 12 minutes though, everything changed."
Can Indiana possibly put the Lakers through this much?
"I hope not," Fox said.
Said Jackson, looking ahead, as always: "The reality is, when you get here, you've got to win it. We may have learned enough at this point to know how to do it."
Several players said the key moment came late in the third quarter, when Jackson called timeout, and told them to stop trying to force the ball inside to O'Neal, who had only two field goals in the first three quarters.
Forget about Shaq, Jackson said.
"Phil said to us, 'Hey, there are four guys around Shaq, shoot the shot, just shoot it. Forget about Shaq,' " Fox said.
"It was so evident that everything we were doing was so overly conscious of getting it into him, getting it into him . . . and we were standing out there with open shots.
"They were daring us to make them. And we finally made them."
Said Ron Harper: "We did some bad things, but somehow we survived."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A look at the Lakers' fourth-quarter run that wiped out a 15-point deficit over the last 10:28:
60-75: Wells makes the second of two free throws (10:28 left)
60-75: Bryant misses 15-foot jumper (10:15)
62-75: O'Neal makes layup (10:10)
62-75: Wells misses five-foot jumper (9:48)
65-75 :Shaw makes 23-foot three-pointer (9:39)
65-75: Pippen misses 24-foot three-pointer (9:18)
66-75: Bryant makes one of two free throws (9:11)
66-75: Wallace misses 16-foot jumper (8:52)
66-75: Wallace misses eight-foot jumper (8:44)
66-75: Fox misses 25-foot three-pointer (8:26)
67-75: O'Neal makes one of two free throws (8:24)
67-75: Bryant misses 24-foot three-pointer (8:03)
67-75: Wells misses 24-foot three-pointer (7:33)
67-75: Shaw misses 25-foot three-pointer (7:13)
70-75: Horry makes 23-foot three-pointer (7:06)
70-75: Pippen misses 20-foot jumper (6:40)
70-75: Wallace misses seven-foot jumper (6:05)
72-75: Bryant makes 11-foot jumper (5:47)
72-75: Smith misses 13-foot jumper (5:23)
72-75: Wallace misses 11-foot jumper (5:04)
72-75: Bryant misses 22-foot three-pointer (4:43)
72-75: Grant misses nine-foot jumper (4:28)
72-75: Wallace misses 19-foot jumper (4:20)
75-75: Shaw makes 25-foot three-pointer (4:00)
75-75: Wallace misses seven-foot jumper (3:39)
75-75: Bryant misses 11-foot jumper (3:19)
75-77: Wallace makes layup (2:58)
77-77: O'Neal makes two free throws (2:44)
77-77: Grant misses 15-foot jumper (2:31)
79-77: O'Neal makes nine-foot jumper (2:12)
79-79: Wallace scores (goaltending on O'Neal, 1:50)
81-79: Bryant makes two free throws (1:34)
LAKERS LED REST OF GAME
During the 21-4 run:
* Lakers were six of 12 from field
* Lakers were six of six on free throws.
* Portland was two of 14 from field, including 12 misses in a row.
LAKERS vs. INDIANA
Best of seven
* Wednesday: at Staples Center, 6 p.m.
* Friday: at Staples Center, 6 p.m.
* Sunday at Indiana, 4:30 p.m.
* June 14 at Indiana, 6 p.m.
* June 16 at Indiana, 6 p.m.-x
* June 19 at Staples Center, 6 p.m.-x
* June 21: at Staples Center, 6 p.m.-x
x-if necessary. All times Pacific.
All games on Channel 4
LAKERS GO FORTH
Portland had control of game until the Laker defense took charge in the final 10:28. W4
Stunned Portland players congratulate Lakers but also blame themselves for fourth-quarter collapse. W4
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
Reserve Brian Shaw slips into a starring role with, among other contributions, a three-point bank shot with four seconds remaining in the third quarter. W5
Lakers vs. Indiana, W5