It had been a surreal two weeks, the Lakers looking just fine without Kobe Bryant, winning four games without their leader and beating back some pretty good teams in the process.
But their luck ended abruptly against the Boston Celtics, in front of a suddenly hushed Staples Center crowd that witnessed an incredibly tight fourth quarter fall the way of the Celtics.
Derek Fisher missed an off-balance 21-footer as time expired, giving Kevin Garnett reason to exuberantly throw his wristband into the crowd. The Celtics won, 87-86.
The Lakers had withstood the loss of Bryant, winning easily over Portland, San Antonio and Utah before struggling in a 104-94 victory over Golden State.
But Boston would force a different ending, riding 24 points from Ray Allen and preventing the Lakers (42-14) from gaining on the Cavaliers (43-12), who lost at home to Denver earlier Thursday night.
The Lakers had their chances on a night their starting backcourt of Shannon Brown and Fisher made three of 18 shots.
But Fisher couldn't score on an inbounds pass from Ron Artest with 2.2 seconds left, coming well short with Allen covering him.
"Fish broke off his cut," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, indicating the Lakers had a different play in mind. "He was supposed to open the floor up . . . "
With the Celtics ahead by one, Paul Pierce missed a driving layup with 5.8 seconds left. It looked like the Lakers lost when Lamar Odom went the length of the court only to have a layup attempt roll out at the buzzer.
The referees, however, ruled that Pau Gasol called timeout a couple of seconds before Odom's miss, giving the Lakers another crack. The Lakers wanted more time on the clock.
"I called it with six seconds, Pau gave them the signal with five," Jackson said. "They rarely ever give time back on the clock."
Bryant sat out a fifth consecutive game because of a sore left ankle but had made his presence known earlier in the day. He wasn't on the bench during the game, preferring to address the team at the morning shoot-around, presumably exhorting them to beat the Celtics.
"He talked a lot," Jackson said. "He came out on the court and helped our guys walk through this practice that we had."
The Lakers won in Boston three weeks ago, 90-89, after Bryant's 16-footer over Allen in the final seconds.
Allen had the hot hand in the rematch, making 10 of 15 shots. In the Celtics' loss last month, he made only two of 10 shots, missing all six of his three-point attempts. He had no such problem Thursday, making four of six behind the arc.
The Lakers looked moribund, trailing early in the fourth quarter, 80-71, but a rally started, oddly enough, when Sasha Vujacic scored down low on consecutive possessions, once on a putback and once after posting up Allen on the left side. Odom made a three-pointer, Vujacic hit a 20-footer, Andrew Bynum dunked and the Lakers had their largest lead of the game, 84-80.
The Celtics fought back, though, somehow winning despite scoring only 11 points in the final quarter.
Rajon Rondo's teardrop shot with 2:50 to play proved to be the winning margin as the Lakers scored two points in the final 7:13.
"Couldn't find a way to score in the last few minutes," Jackson said. "I thought our execution kind of slowed down there at the end."
Gasol had 22 points and Artest had 15 for the Lakers, who now have a long weekend, a hiccup in the schedule that keeps them out of game action until next Tuesday in Memphis.
Bryant will have had 18 days between games by the time the Lakers play the Grizzlies, though it remains to be seen if it's enough time to heal his sore tendon.
Between now and then, the Lakers can only reflect on what could have been a 5-0 mark without Bryant.