INDIANAPOLIS - The Lakers' big man was gone, disqualified on fouls with 2:33 left in overtime.
That meant Kobe Bryant, at age 21, on a hurt left ankle and in his first NBA Finals, got a chance to redeem himself from past playoff failures, while at the same time putting him on the verge to capture the first of what could easily be many championships.
"This is the game that I have been dreaming about," Bryant said. "I mean, I dream about it every day. I dreamed about it before I came to the game today. I actually dreamed about hitting the game-winning shot at the top of the key."
The actual game produced a dominating performance by a hurting Bryant, who missed half of Game 2 and all of Game 3 with a sprained ankle. He put up 28 points in last night's 120-118 victory over the Indiana Pacers before 18,345 at Conseco Fieldhouse, a victory that gives the Lakers a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Six came in the overtime session, all after center Shaquille O'Neal disqualified with 36 points and 21 rebounds when he picked up his sixth foul against Rik Smits. Reality could have easily been a nightmare for Bryant and the Lakers, who watched a Reggie Miller three-point shot that would have won the game at the buzzer hit iron.
"Kobe smelled it at the end of the game, his opportunity when Shaq went out," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He won it for us."
The Pacers were put in that position after Rick Fox basically gave the team a point, fouling Jalen Rose before the ball was inbounded. That allowed the Pacers to send Miller to the free-throw line and trim the lead to 120-118.
The Pacers retained possession, and coach Larry Bird decided to go with Miller off a double screen that had him catch the ball a few feet behind the furthest area of the three-point line.
"We had plenty of time to get a good look at the basket, but wanted to get the ball in Reggie's hands at that time," Bird said. "I thought we did a good job of doing that, just that we didn't get a piece of the defender and get the time to get the shot up. It was a rushed shot. If we had the three, we were going to take it. If it was a two, we would have took that."
Miller's three went over the outstretched hand of Robert Horry and looked online before bouncing off the rim as the buzzer sounded. Miller finished with 35 points, 19 in the fourth quarter alone.
"It felt good," Miller said. "I think what more so distracted me was when Robert Horry was running at me. I had to shoot it higher over his hand. When you do that, you probably got to shoot it a little bit longer, which I didn't. But it was right on target, it was just short because I had to shoot it higher."
Sam Perkins' three tied the score at 104 with less than a minute left to play in regulation. On the Lakers ensuing possession, Horry sent a pass into the first row of seats, giving the Pacers the ball for what appeared to be the final shot in the game.
But Travis Best, with O'Neal guarding him, shot an air ball on a step-back jumper, giving the Lakers the ball with 2.3 seconds left.
The Lakers then had a chance to win. The ball went into the league's Most Valuable Player, but O'Neal's hook shot bounced off the rim.
Los Angeles overcame poor free-throw shooting late, with O'Neal missing four of six in the last four minutes of regulation as the Pacers were able to force overtime, the first in an NBA Finals since Game 1 of the Chicago-Utah series in 1998.
The fourth quarter rivaled one of those vintage games during the 1980s involving the Lakers and Larry Bird's former team, the Celtics. Both teams exchanged big shot after big shot - the Pacers in an effort to tie the series at two and give themselves a real shot at winning its first NBA title, the Lakers in an attempt to seize control of the series.
In this game, Miller played the role of Bird, willing his team with his first big fourth-quarter effort of the Finals.
Miller's third three of the period with just over four minutes left gave the Pacers a 101-99 lead, but Bryant gave the Lakers a one-point lead on a jumper after O'Neal made one of two free throws.
It was a courageous performance by Bryant, who picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. But instead of going to the bench or playing passively, he came out firing, scoring 10 points in the period, turning a 54-51 halftime deficit into 80-77 lead.
It was a much different Lakers team from the one that played in the first half.
The Lakers gave up 33 points in the first quarter in just about every conceivable way. The Pacers shot three of four from three-point territory and got some much needed scoring in the paint from Smits.
Smits scored eight points in the period on 4-for-4 shooting, while Miller put in 10. The Lakers got back Bryant, who missed half of Game 2 and all of Game 3 with a sprained left ankle. Bryant started off relatively quiet, scoring two points on 1-for-4 shooting.
But he did give the Lakers a dimension they were without with his ability to create his own shot. And the Lakers came back in the second quarter to close the Pacers' 33-23 lead after one to three at halftime.
Indiana was able to hang on to the lead by out-rebounding the Lakers 20-17, something that is usually a strong suit for the Los Angeles.
The bench was also key for the Pacers. Austin Croshere continued his excellent play during the series, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Croshere and fellow substitute Best penetrated the Lakers' defense and helped get O'Neal in foul trouble.