It was more than a critical victory, if that's possible. It was more like a cool breeze.
Technically, no one in the sweltering Laker locker room late Friday night could feel it, but it was there, bringing relief to one team and two players who had been taking the heat.
Vlade Divac, who made his free throws, and Cedric Ceballos, who made his first appearance of the series, are heroes again. And the Lakers, who could have been on the brink of elimination, are instead back in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, now down, 2-1, after defeating the San Antonio Spurs, 92-85, before 17,505 at the Forum.
Ceballos, averaging 4.5 points and shooting 26.7% the first two games, had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. Divac, whose two missed free throws with 4.6 seconds left Monday were instrumental in the Game 2 loss, had 14 points and 13 rebounds--and went four of six from the line.
They had volunteered to take the blame before, dueling martyrs. Today, along with Nick Van Exel--who had a game-high 25 points--they will have to take the credit.
"I'm not at all surprised," Coach Del Harris said. "Pleased, but not surprised."
Divac termed the recent past extra motivation. Ceballos, who had stopped talking to reporters the last couple days, came across loud and clear on redemption night.
Could he be contained a third consecutive game?
Not even through halftime. By then he had 15 points and eight rebounds.
"It was just at a point where I took the blame on myself the first two games," he said. "Definitely, you could put those on my shoulders."
Now this, a day after Harris predicted such a breakthrough and then reaffirmed his support in Ceballos not long before tip-off. The difference in Game 3, Ceballos said, was in being more aggressive.
"I didn't stay as passive," he said.
Neither did the Lakers.
Greeted by the supportive crowd they had hoped--and expected--to find upon returning to the Forum, with one loud ovation during pregame introductions saved for Divac, the Lakers burst out of the starting gate. Nine and a half minutes in, they were already up by 10 points.
Then Van Exel, playing as if this was the fifth quarter of Game 4 against Seattle, the previous home appearance, took over in the final minute. A jumper from the left side put the Lakers up, 25-11, with 31 seconds remaining in the period. One possession later, he got the ball at the far end, drove to the left side, and drilled a pull-up three-point shot with 0.1 showing.
The Laker lead was 17, 28-11. The Spurs shot 25%.
"They came out and played great," San Antonio Coach Bob Hill said. "They put us on our heels."
The advantage got as big as 18 before intermission, first at 33-15 after Sam Bowie's dunk and then at 47-29 following Ceballos' three-point shot. Ceballos had finally joined the party by going six of 12 the first half.
The Spurs were next. That late 18-point deficit, with 2:47 remaining, became 10 with 37 seconds to go when Doc Rivers connected on three consecutive jumpers, including a pair of three-point baskets. They got within eight before Van Exel's runner with 2.8 seconds remaining pushed the cushion back to 10, 53-43.
San Antonio, the NBA's winningest road team during the regular season, kept the pressure on in the third quarter, closing to six points early. Van Exel took control again--a jumper with two seconds left on the shot clock, followed by a three-point shot, capped less than a minute later by a baseline floater over 7-foot-1 David Robinson--and the Lakers were back up by 10.
By the end of the quarter, the lead was 11, 76-65, and heading to 20 at 92-72 with 3:32 left in the game as the Lakers turned it into a runaway. Van Exel already had his 25 points.
"Everybody took this game as a challenge," Eddie Jones said. "Everybody took this one personally. We were down two-zip, they came in here to play at out home. You have to take it personally."
The Lakers did just that. Two players in particular.
David Robinson had 34 points and 13 rebounds for the Spurs. . . . Chick Hearn was unable to broadcast the second half on KLAC radio and Prime Sports because of laryngitis, but only after his streak reached 2,781 consecutive games. Magic Johnson joined Stu Lantz for the second half.