The Lakers are a win from repeating last year's NBA championship, a win from initiating the breathless talk of a new dynasty, one they surely believe would coincide with the career paths of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
In their locker room, a white board carried the message in blue marker: "1 Mo'." Below that, someone added a red heart. It was underlined twice.
The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 100-86, Wednesday night at First Union Center for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals, and so they are on the verge of the end. The hugs at the final buzzer were a little tighter. The high fives were harder. The smiles pulled at the corners of their mouths.
They are close, and they know it. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit to win the title, and the Lakers have not lost three in a row in the Phil Jackson era, which began two years ago on Saturday.
O'Neal scored 34 points, many on dunks the force of which appeared to startle 76er center Dikembe Mutombo, and the Lakers made 10 three-pointers to bring themselves to the brink of their championship, which would be the eighth in Los Angeles Laker history.
Bryant took only 13 shots and scored 19 points. He had 10 rebounds and nine assists. The Laker bench--Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue and Ron Harper--combined to make seven of 10 three-point attempts, so only a brief fourth-quarter surge by the 76ers made the score as close as it was.
"We're feeling good," Harper said. "The main thing is, we can't let go of that."
Asked if the result of the series was inevitable, Harper grinned. The Lakers haven't lost an elimination game in the postseason.
"You tell me," he said.
After 15 playoff games, the Lakers have won 14. The loss was in overtime, eight days ago. No champion has gone unbeaten on the road, where the Lakers are 7-0. Game 5 is Friday night, same place, same time.
"I'm on a mission," O'Neal said. "I'm very focused and, you know, my teammates are looking for me.
"We still haven't put together a great game like we did in the first three series, but we're doing enough to win. And that's what it's all about--winning."
They outshot and outrebounded the 76ers in a game that never drifted into the frantic pace preferred by the energetic Allen Iverson, who made seven of his last 10 shots, many after the Lakers had run off, and scored 35 points.
Mutombo scored 19 points, but could not slow O'Neal, who spent the previous 48 hours challenging Mutombo to play him. Mutombo did, and the referees kept O'Neal out of foul trouble. O'Neal played with a grin meant particularly for his father, who again sat seven rows off the floor behind the Laker bench, and again thoroughly enjoyed himself.
"That team starts with Shaquille O'Neal and ends with Shaquille O'Neal," Iverson said.
If that was meant to slight Bryant, who was more in the flow in the first half than he was in the second, Bryant probably won't mind. At 22, he could be within 48 hours of his second ring.
"Well, we set ourselves up for a nice situation now," Bryant said. "That's all we wanted to do. Before the game, we just talked about winning this here one game, you know, set ourselves up."
It could be a long two days. Last year, in a similar situation in Indianapolis, the Lakers were 120-87 losers to the Indiana Pacers. They won Game 6, for the title, three days later at Staples Center.
"It's exciting because you start thinking about more than just the game," Jackson said. "You start thinking about winning it. You can't do that. That's one of the keys that we didn't get across to the team last year. I don't know what it's going to be like. I know this is going to be an animated place on Friday night. We have to be very, very prepared, embraced as a team, emotionally poised and set."
The moment that positively floored the Laker bench came near the end of the third quarter, when Derek Fisher slapped away a pass intended for Iverson and shoved over Iverson on his way past, headed off to the far basket.
When he arrived at the rim, Fisher flipped a pass behind him, into Bryant's hands. Bryant made the dunk a tomahawk job, his head at the rim. The Lakers led, 70-48.
Not dead yet, Philadelphia scored the first 11 points of the fourth quarter. In those three minutes, the 76ers got their crowd back, their town back.
The Lakers missed seven consecutive shots, their first six of the fourth quarter, and the 76ers drew to 77-70, from 22 points down in the third to seven down with most of the last quarter to play.
Jackson called a timeout two possessions into the fourth quarter.
He told them, "If you're not ready for this run you better get ready, because it's gonna come."
With 8:58 remaining and the Lakers holding unsteadily to that seven-point lead, Jackson replaced Bryant with the veteran Harper. The Lakers scored the next eight points, two on a dunk by O'Neal, three each on long jumpers by Shaw and Lue. Iverson made a free throw, and Horry made another three-pointer, maybe three feet from the spot that finished the 76ers in Game 3. The Lakers led, 88-71.
By the end, by the time the Lakers spent their possessions killing time and saving themselves for Game 5, half of the arena was empty.
"I'm not even looking at the fact that we're one game from being eliminated," Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown said. "You know, it's just like I say to my team every game: Know who we are. A lot of people are watching us. We've just got to go out and try to play the right way.
"Whatever energy we have, we have to put forth. We have a long, long time to think about whether we played up to our potential, whether this was a successful year or not."
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Good Things Come in Threes
When the 76ers seemed primed to make a couple of runs, the Lakers got some unexpected help from beyond the three-point line:
* 4:52 Horry makes three-pointer: 40-26, Lakers
* 4:37 Mutombo makes layup and free throw: 40-29, Lakers
* 4:04 Harper makes three-pointer: 43-29, Lakers
* 3:31 Lue makes three-pointer: 46-29, Lakers
* 7:52 Shaw makes three-pointer: 82-70, Lakers
* 7:18 Lue makes three-pointer: 85-70, Lakers
* 7:16 Iverson makes technical foul free throw: 85-71, Lakers
* 6:40 Horry makes three-pointer: 88-71, Lakers