Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wipes his face as he prepares for the final minutes… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The reign is almost done now, drip, drip, dripping to a halt, soaked in agony and astonishment.
You can hear it. You can feel it. Can you believe it?
I can't, and I'm sitting here in the middle of it, a gym filled with screaming and taunting fans in blue shirts and red faces, the most joyful visiting arena that I've visited in three years' worth of springs.
"The Time Is Now" read the bright shirts of the Dallas Mavericks fans.
"Our Time Is Up," read the blank faces of the Lakers.
The two-time defending NBA champions' search for history is now a historical impossibility, their planned coronation swiftly and stunningly trashed by one of the first guests, a 98-92 loss to the Mavericks on Friday turning them into purple and old.
The Lakers now trail, three games to none, in a second-round series of a postseason they were supposed to own. The Lakers are now one loss from being swept by a Mavericks team that some thought they would sweep.
"Shocked a little bit," said Lamar Odom.
You think? No NBA team has ever overcome this. Few Lakers champions have ever acted so physically and mentally overcome.
Kobe Bryant flying to nowhere, throwing to nobody, shooting into nothing. Pau Gasol falling, sprawling, and recoiling from a sideline jab to the chest by angry Coach Phil Jackson. Derek Fisher launching an important late pass to Fort Worth.
How could this happen? After blowing a 16-point lead in the third quarter to lose Game 1, the Lakers blew a seven-point lead in the final 5:08 to lose this one.
The skid began with Bryant throwing a bad pass, and ended with Bryant throwing up an air ball, and really, seriously, how?
How come the sport's best closers can no longer close? Why are the game's toughest pressure players crumbling under a push from some of the game's softest?
"They finished better than we did," Jackson said after the Lakers were outscored, 20-7, down the stretch. "That was the difference in the game."
And the difference in a dynasty, unless you really believe this Lakers team is capable of making history, winning four consecutive games against a Mavericks team that refuses to collapse.
Well, OK, one guy believes.
"I don't know, I might be sick in the head . . . crazy . . . but I still think we can win this series," Bryant said. "I might be nuts."
What is nuts is thinking that he's still Kobe Bryant, because he's clearly not, the game's best clutch player clutching again down the stretch, unable to score in the final four minutes, looking tired and slow and sometimes even confused.
Bryant, who finished with only 17 points, is also no longer the floor leader on defense, his teammates running all over the court while making a complete mess of any sort of scheme.
The Mavericks scored on eight of nine possessions down the stretch with either wide-open jumpers or easy drives that led to fouls.
Peja Stojakovic sank an open three. Dirk Nowitzki sank an open three. Stojakovic hit another open three, Jason Terry yet another open three.
"We blew rotation after rotation," said Bryant. "It was just [making mistakes] at the wrong time."
All this time, the one player who could help them most was being ignored, Andrew Bynum taking just two shots and making only one in the fourth quarter after dominating much of a game in which the Lakers outscored the Mavericks by 36 points in the paint.
Said Jackson: "They were just collapsing around him."
Said Bynum: "It's tough, man. The last five possessions were terrible."
Oh yeah, those. The late mess included a horrible shot by Odom, a wild shot by Bryant, and an inbounds pass by Fisher that sailed back out of bounds over Odom's head.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to understand how we find ourselves in a game like that and we don't know how to use each other's strengths," Odom said. "We've been through it so many times, but we're so stubborn with each other, and it caught up to us."
He's talking about the "trust issues" that were raised by Bynum after the Game 2 loss and, believe it, those issues are real. Under pressure, these Lakers don't cover for each other on defense, don't look for each other on offense, and basically look like they barely know each other.
Even the stoic Jackson, possibly one game from the end of a legendary career, lost his cool early. With Dallas leading, 19-16, with 4:12 left in the first quarter, Jackson angrily called a timeout, then, during that timeout, he jabbed the struggling Gasol in the chest.
"I was just making sure he understood he needed to take care of the basketball," Jackson said.
My understanding was that Jackson had lost his composure, Gasol has lost all confidence, and after a long and distracting season, the Lakers have finally lost all sense of each other.
"It's crazy," Bynum said, and you can trust him on that one.