DALLAS — Kobe Bryant knows the deal. His Los Angeles Lakers are down 0-3 to the Dallas Mavericks and none of the 98 NBA teams facing that deficit have ever come back to win a series.
Yet Bryant also knows his team has won the last two championships, and reached the finals three straight years. And that his soon-to-be-retired coach has won a record 11 championships and has never been swept in his 20 years on the sideline.
Bryant also realizes how close his team is to leading this series 2-1. They blew a 16-point lead in the opener, losing only in the final seconds, and on Friday night they fell apart down the stretch again on the way to a 98-92 loss.
So, with all that in mind, he made this declaration following the Game 3 defeat: "I think we're still going to win the series."
Confidence, eh? Well, he also prefaced that line by laughing and saying, "I might be sick in the head or crazy."
The Lakers have mostly themselves to blame for being in this predicament. Leading by seven with 5:05 left, and having controlled the game throughout the second half, they got sloppy on defense. They gave Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic wide open shots, and that turned things around in a hurry.
A 20-7 closing run jump-started by 3s from Nowitzki and Stojakovic put the Mavericks on the verge of not only winning this series, but pulling off a sweep. Dallas can move to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2006 with a victory at home on Sunday.
"We're not good enough to relax or take the pedal off the metal," Nowitzki said. "You don't want to ever give a champion life, so hopefully we can have the same effort and the same crowd and a great game on Sunday."
The Mavericks scored 32 points in the fourth quarter, the most by either team in any period this series. Bryant said the Lakers helped by making "some of the dumbest defensive mistakes I've seen us make all year."
"We're disappointed," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has never been down 0-3 in a series, much less been swept, in 20 years as an NBA coach. "We feel like Games 1 and 3 we controlled the pace of the games. They were better at finishing the games than we were. But we still believe we're going to win the next game and we'll go from there."
Nowitzki and the Mavericks want to get this over with as soon as possible.
This veteran-filled club would love to avoid another long round-trip flight and to start resting up for the next series. Dallas would be the home team in the conference finals, regardless of whether Oklahoma City or Memphis advances.
For a franchise that's perennially underachieved, and is still trying to overcome blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA finals, ending this series Sunday also would send a great message about their chances of winning their first title. It also would avoid any chance of yet another postseason disaster.
"We don't want to open the door for them because then it will be hard to close," forward Shawn Marion said.
Missing the suspended Ron Artest, Jackson gambled with a starting lineup featuring 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom at small forward, alongside 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Lakers logically pounded the ball inside with great results. Even Bryant started getting into the paint, making his first layup of the series.
Perhaps Artest's absence caught up to them at the end. Jackson acknowledged "there was some fatigue factor in there." He also admitted that his super-sized lineup was much better protecting the paint than defending the 3-point line.
And there was that Nowitzki fellow.
Dallas' superstar scored 32 points, making 12 of 19 shots. With the Lakers' big guys crowding the lane, he went back to his roots and got comfortable behind the 3-point line, burying 4 of 5. He only attempted four free throws, but made them all.
"Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of him either scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot, or make a pass for an assist for a 3 or a 2 or whatever it was," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
A record Dallas crowd of 21,156 – most wearing royal-blue giveaway T-shirts that read, "The Time Is Now," with the Mavs logo in place of the basketball on top of the championship trophy – went through the usual chants of "De-fense!" and "Beat LA!" without much impact through the first three quarters. With the game on the line, they got to their feet and helped the home team sustain its final push.
Terry scored 23, including some of the points that helped ice the victory in the closing minutes. Stojakovic scored 11 of his 15 in the final quarter. Jason Kidd added 11 points and nine assists.
Bynum had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Odom scored 18 and Bryant scored 17. He had only four points in the final quarter.
Gasol had 12 points and Shannon Brown provided a spark off the bench with 10.
"We have a decision to make, whether it's our time or somebody else's time," Odom said. "How do you want your story to play out?"
Notes: Since the last time the Lakers were swept (1999), they have pulled off seven sweeps. That includes against Kidd and the Nets in the 2002 NBA finals. ... Dallas has been up 3-0 twice before. In 2006, the Mavericks went on to sweep the Grizzlies. In 2003, they needed seven games to eliminate Portland. ... Bryant passed Shaquille O'Neal to move into third place on the career postseason scoring list. With 5,263, he trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) and Michael Jordan (5,987).