INDIANAPOLIS -- They might be champions, eventually, but not before looking like jesters one last time.
And not before dragging the whole show back to Los Angeles one more time.
You know them too well by now: The Lakers pick their spots, and Conseco Fieldhouse against the Indiana Pacers on Friday in Game 5, with a chance to clinch an NBA title, was not one of them.
Not even close.
For the fourth consecutive playoff round, the Lakers followed one of their finest hours with several of their worst, dropping behind early, and then getting dropped cold, 120-87, before a jubilant, and bit astonished 18,345.
''We wanted to be a champion tonight,'' said Kobe Bryant, who followed his thrilling Game 4 performance with a four-for-20 shooting clunker. ''But unfortunately, it didn't happen.''
On this night, Jalen Rose (32 points) and Reggie Miller (25) found all the open spaces they needed, shot the lights out early -- jumping Indiana to a 64-45 halftime lead -- and then kept firing darts into the heart of any Laker comeback effort.
Overall, the Pacers made 39 of their 68 shots (57.4 percent), 10 of their 20 three-point tries, and 32 of 36 free throws, a statistical combination that the Lakers could not meet, approach or survive.
The Lakers, who pulled out a dramatic overtime victory in Game 4 on Wednesday at Conseco, still lead this series, 3-2, with the final two games set for Staples Center, where the Lakers are 10-2 in the postseason, including two strong victories over Indiana in Games 1 and 2.
''You know, we came in here to get a ballgame,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ''We did it.
''We're sitting in the driver's seat in this situation and we're not in a situation where we have to get in a panic mode. But we have to play with more energy and more control, more up-tempo control of the ballgame.''
This was the Lakers' worst loss of the season, at a distinctly inappropriate moment -- when the world was measuring them for championship rings, and announcing the potential beginning of a dynasty.
Drum roll please ... The legendary L.A. Lakers, losers by 33, and flying home to lick wounds and tighten up that defense.
So the series moves to Staples Center -- where the Lakers have wrapped each of the previous three rounds -- for Game 6 on Monday, and if necessary, Game 7 on Wednesday.
And this franchise will have three more days, at least, before celebrating its first championship since 1988.
''When things are meant to be,'' said Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers' sole bright spot, scoring 35 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, ''they will happen.''
But it was not their first flop or worst-looking of the playoff season: The Lakers are 3-6 overall when in position to finish off a series, and 0-5 when given the chance to clinch on the road, each one suffered in particularly gruesome ways.
''Game 4 in Phoenix ... Game 6 in Portland ... Game 4 in Sacramento,'' said Laker forward Rick Fox, ticking off the litany of Laker clincher-clunkers.
''You know, it's not so much that we're not capable of winning these games, it's that we abandon the persistence of execution that we have to have to work our way back.
''We did it in (winning) Games 3 and 4 of the Portland series, after being down. But as you saw tonight, being down 15, 16, 17 points, we took a lot of jump shots, we tried to get it all back with the 15-point shot, which doesn't exist in the game of basketball.''
But the Lakers came back to eliminate Sacramento in the first round with a Game 5 blowout. They came back to finish Phoenix in the second round with a Game 5 victory. They came back to edge Portland in Game 7.
''To go out there and get whupped like we did, it's embarrassing and we definitely should feel it,'' said forward Glen Rice, who scored 11 points. ''You learn. When you get beat up like that, you learn.''
They have been here before, probably too often, but each time returned, with a vengeance.
Said Jackson: ''Yeah, we bounced back from games like this before. I don't like to think of a team that has championship quality in it to lose by 33 points.
''We have to prove something to ourselves when we go back home in this regard.''
Fox, as is now his playoff custom, engaged in several snarling jousts with Rose and other Pacers, and said he looked forward to silencing Indiana on Monday.
''It makes snapping back a whole lot of fun, when you take a beating like we took today,'' Fox said.
The Pacer storm hit early, often and did not recede over the entire first half -- Indiana, given wide-open looks from long distance, made its first six three-point tries, on its way to a 39-28 lead after the first quarter.
Rose, who also worked the Lakers easily on the post, made nine of his 12 shots in the first two quarters (four for five from three-point range), and carved the Lakers for 22 first-half points.
If not for the inside play of O'Neal, who was nine for 13 in the half (19 points), the Lakers would have been so far behind they could've already started plans for Game 6.
''I think they came out and they beat our pants off tonight,'' Laker guard Ron Harper said. ''They earned it. They made their shots. When a team does that, you don't have a chance.''
Bryant continued his game-long struggle in the third quarter, with a rash of fouls, missed shots and wild drives to the basket.
''Kobe was game for it, but he just didn't find his shots or rhythm out there to play with,'' Jackson said. ''They did a nice job on him.''
''We took it pretty bad today,'' O'Neal said quietly when it was over. ''And when we're in game situations like this, we always respond well.''
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