The Lakers, marred all season by dysfunction and disappointment, began to sound a new theme to their tumultuous year by defeating the San Antonio Spurs, 88-76, on Saturday night, eliminating the defending champions from the National Basketball Assn. playoffs.
The word now is improbable.
By applying a tenacious defense that protected a slim lead through much of the noisy second half at Staples Center, the Lakers suddenly emerged as a likely favorite to win their fourth NBA title in five years -- just days after many experts wrote them off as finished.
The victory completed a stunning turnaround as the Lakers took four games in a row -- including one of the most thrilling in playoff history -- against a team that had not lost in the previous six weeks.
San Antonio had looked almost unbeatable in pushing its win streak to 17 games, including the first two of this series. And until the Lakers defeated them at the final buzzer Thursday on a remarkable fall-away shot by reserve guard Derek Fisher, the Spurs had not lost on their home floor since March 1.
Saturday's game was marked by poor shooting and mistakes by both teams, particularly the Spurs, who seemed unable to hit from outside and could not find room to score near the basket.
The Lakers' 7-foot-1 Shaquille O'Neal grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked five shots, including two in a row at one point late in the third quarter. After the second, Kobe Bryant hit a jumper, then O'Neal blocked another shot and Kareem Rush, a sparingly used reserve, sank a three-point shot to give the Lakers a seven-point lead.
San Antonio caught up and went ahead by a point early in the final quarter, but the Lakers edged ahead again on a free-throw by Bryant and a three-point shot by Fisher.
With the sellout crowd standing and exhorting the defense, the Lakers stifled the Spurs down the stretch and pushed the lead to 10 points when Bryant drove for a soaring right-handed dunk with less than two minutes to play. Bryant scored 16 of his team-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.
"We tried to make people make plays who weren't used to making plays," said Laker guard Gary Payton, describing the team's approach on defense. "We knew if we just kept playing defense it would be hard for them."
With the triumph, the Lakers advance to meet either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Sacramento Kings in the NBA's Western Conference championship round. The winner of that series will play for the NBA title.
The road ahead figures to be difficult. Minnesota, led by the league's most valuable player, Kevin Garnett, would have a home-court advantage against the Lakers, based on a better regular-season record. Sacramento is deep and well-rounded, and has come close to knocking the Lakers out of the playoffs in the past.
Should the Lakers advance to the finals, they could face the club with the league's best regular-season record, the Indiana Pacers. Again, the Lakers would face the possibility of playing a deciding game on the road, where NBA teams tend to fare poorly.
Despite all that, the mood among the Lakers is suddenly upbeat.
"I knew we had it in us," O'Neal said. "Now we just have to wait and see who we are going to play next ... and just take it one game at a time, and keep playing with passion."
The Lakers played Saturday's finale on the emotional high of having won a game in San Antonio that many labeled an instant classic -- a cliffhanger that seemed to typify the ups and downs and high drama of the season.
Through much of it, the Lakers displayed some of their best basketball. They exploited a hot shooting night by unheralded Devean George to run up a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter. Then, as the Spurs' defense tightened, the Lakers went cold. The Spurs not only caught up, but took a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers' two marquee players, O'Neal and Bryant, hit crucial baskets to put the Lakers back in front by a point with 11 seconds to play. Faced with their last offensive chance, the Spurs got the ball to their top scorer, 7-footer Tim Duncan, who caught it outside, with his back to the basket, and made a quick move across the middle of the floor, closely guarded by O'Neal.
Turning, falling to his left, Duncan got off a long, high-arching shot that somehow went in. The crowd erupted in cheers and the Spurs leaped into one another's arms, celebrating the apparent victory. The Lakers called timeout with only four-tenths of a second left on the clock.
The Lakers plotted a desperation play for either Bryant or O'Neal, but when both were covered, Payton made the inbounds pass to the 6-foot-1 Fisher, the man Payton had replaced in the starting lineup.