LOS ANGELES - The youthful Los Angeles Lakers maintain they're not close to being a finished product.
And yet, they're one win away from earning their first NBA Finals berth in four years, with as many as three shots at it, if necessary.
In the process, they just might put an end to the San Antonio Spurs' era of dominance.
The Lakers lead the Spurs, 3-1, in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals, and can put them away tonight at Staples Center, where they own a 7-0 record in the postseason and haven't lost since March 28.
The Lakers moved into the enviable position with a little help from the referees in their 93-91 win Tuesday - at least according to the NBA.
With 2.1 seconds left to play, the Spurs inbounded the ball to Brent Barry, who was bumped by Lakers guard Derek Fisher on the floor. No foul was called, and Barry missed badly on a desperation 3-pointer before time expired.
Spurs players and coach Gregg Popovich said a foul should not have been called, but yesterday the NBA disagreed after reviewing the play.
"With the benefit of instant replay, it appears a foul should have been called," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.
Had that happened, Barry would have gone to the line for two free throws and a chance to tie the game and even the series.
And to think, just last May, after the Lakers failed to win a playoff series for the third straight year, Kobe Bryant was demanding a trade.
"We're just learning as we go," Bryant said yesterday at the team's practice facility in suburban El Segundo. "We've seen some dark days around here."
Fisher and seldom-used reserve Ira Newble are the only players on the roster over 30, and Bryant and Fisher are the only ones with championship rings, earning them with the Lakers from 2000-02.
"We're a tough bunch," Bryant said. "I think we've grown into a tough team mentally. I think we've grown up. Quick learners - we're all just intelligent idiots."
Should the Spurs win Game 5, the teams would meet Saturday night in San Antonio. A seventh game, if needed, would be played Monday night at Staples Center.
"Down, 3-1, we know it's really hard to come back," San Antonio's Manu Ginobili said. "But we're going to try. Of course, we still believe in ourselves. We're going to have a shot. As always the next game is the game."
The Spurs, who have won three championships in the last five years and four in the last nine, have all the experience a team could ask for, with Tim Duncan, Ginobili, and Tony Parker leading the way.
"They're the defending champions, and we're going to have to play another good 48-minute basketball game in order to beat them," Fisher said.
"We've been through tough games already in this series, and this game is going to be the toughest," Lakers center Pau Gasol said.
San Antonio appeared a step slow at times Tuesday, with the Lakers' 26-4 advantage in second-chance points a key.
"We did a pretty decent job of stopping them, and every time we did get a stop, they got another chance at it," Duncan said. "Even if it wasn't a score right away, they got an opportunity to pull it back out and run it again. And that takes a lot out of you."