Staggering through the final littered miles of a series lined with hostility, the Lakers reached inside Wednesday to produce one more sparkling surprise.
A closing, championship kick.
In front of a First Union Center crowd stunned out of their smirks, the Lakers sprinted past the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals and all but disappeared into a second consecutive title horizon.
The final score was 100-86, a margin best measured not in points, but miles, 14 long miles for a 76er team that has begun walking up the court.
The situation is a three-games-to-one Laker lead, which bloats when fed with the following fact:
The Lakers have yet to lose three consecutive games in the two years of the Phil Jackson era.
The 76ers are as capable of breaking that streak as Crenshaw High.
The series is not over, but it is.
The Lakers are not NBA champions yet, but they will be.
Their first lunge for the finish line takes place here Friday, with last year's 33-point loss in Game 5 in Indiana still in their minds, and new fire in their sneakers.
"I think we got our rhythm back," Tyronn Lue said with a smile as tiny as that hand he waved in the air after each of his two timely three-pointers.
Or, in the words of Ron Harper, "Some of their guys were like, ohhhhhh."
And to think, this was supposed to be a series that ended in a clench, one team finally exhausted, falling to the floor, the other staggering to the trophy.
So it seemed Wednesday when the Lakers stepped on the court and missed their first six shots while losing the ball three times,.
It was time for the 76ers' big punch. Except they swung and missed. During that four-minute period, they could score only four points. They led only 4-3.
Their best chance, and their last chance.
See how they run. See what Portland and Sacramento and San Antonio saw.
See, finally, what the rest of the NBA sees in Shaq, who predictably followed a mediocre Game 3 with monster points (34), rebounds (14), and funky, head-swiveling downcourt runs (two).
"Y'all know who he is now," Harper said of Shaq. "You know he's the big, whatever it is he calls himself, he changes his name four times a day."
Y'all also know who the Lakers are now.
They are not just Shaq's slams, but three consecutive three-pointers in the second quarter by Robert Horry, Harper and Lue.
"It's hard for the other team, they think they are rotating good and playing good defense and, boom, a three-pointer," Harper said. "Then, boom, another three-pointer. And, boom, another three-pointer."
They are not just Bryant's unselfishness--he came within one assist of a triple double--but three more consecutive three-pointers in the fourth quarter to quell a typical 76er uprising. This time it was Brian Shaw, Lue and Horry.
You remember Brian Shaw. Last spring's hero left town Monday, flew to Oakland for the birth of daughter Bianca on Tuesday, then returned here Wednesday to fall asleep in the locker room before the game.
At which point O'Neal recorded his first assist, tapping Shaw awake.
"He slapped my feet, told me to get up, that he was going to need me tonight," Shaw said.
And what was supposed to be the final rounds of a boxing match became the final laps of a race that left the 76ers alone in the distant cinders.
Yeah, alone. There probably would have been another fight in the First Union Center seats in the final minutes of Wednesday's game, except, well, there were hardly any fans who stuck around to fight.
Philly Fanatics, they're not.
Then, under the stands, the 76er dancers became singers, yodeling, "Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back . . . "
Patience, ladies, patience.
During the last two years, the importance of Laker postseason victories could be measured in the cheering from the bench.
Late Wednesday, Devean George was dancing around like halftime performer Destiny's Child.
By then, the 76ers looked like destiny's fraud.
Allen Iverson is great and gutty and all that, but, goodness, how many church-league players could get away with missing 18 of 30 shots? Since his Game 1 heroics, he has shot 38%.
And Dikembe Mutombo is a nice guy and neat role model, but he's not the first center to have absolutely no chance playing straight up against O'Neal.
Much of this, of course, was also caused by a Laker defense that swarmed the 76ers at every corner, the harassment deflating whatever 320 pounds and the three-pointers did not.
"Seems like the fire was not there in a lot of guys' eyes," Mutombo said.
Yet that fire was in one particular voice after the game, when Iverson started talking about O'Neal.
"You got somebody that big just sitting in the middle of the lane, I mean, what can you do?" Iverson asked. "Never moves out of position. Not one illegal defense call the whole series, you know . . . just crazy."
He later added, "When you let him get away with some stuff, then it's like Wilt Chamberlain out there."
For The Answer, a question:
Could you just shut up?
As they lope far away into history, the Lakers can't hear you anyway.