- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- You knew they were going in.
The looping layup on a baseline drive to force overtime. The running all-net dagger from the right elbow at the OT buzzer.
You just knew they were going in because Kobe Bryant took both shots.
Nobody knows OT torture like the Phoenix Suns.
Combine those two stubborn forces of NBA law and Sunday's thrilling outcome --improbable as it seemed to almost everyone who participated -- actually felt somewhat inevitable at the same time.
In this building, remember, these things happen for the Lakers.
You can say so now about the post-Shaq Lakers, too.
We snickered all season, with countless cracks about the L.A. Kobes, but this T-E-A-M suddenly has its own slice of Laker lore to go with that 3-1 series lead. The L.A. fans famed for leaving early lingered long at Staples Center after Bryant capped off a comeback to rival the fourth-quarter resurrection against Portland from 15 points down in Game 7 of the 2000 West finals. Or Robert Horry's 2002 triple from the top of the 3-point arc to snatch a 3-1 lead away from the Sacramento Kings.
So swept up in this latest Hollywood drama, No. 8 was just about prepared to rank it as his No. 1.
"The difference is," Kobe tried to explain, "in the past people expected us to win these games."
Nobody could have drawn up all this.
Routine as it might have been to see Bryant ranging to his right and rising up over Raja Bell and Boris Diaw to sink this 99-98 victory -- routine being the word Kobe used after also calling it "the most fun shot I've ever hit" -- Game 4's path to that climax couldn't have been more twisty.
This has been the poster series for script-shredding, in a playoffs teeming with more early drama than anyone could wish for, but this game itself was wackier than the first three combined. Bryant sat out all but 57 seconds of the second quarter with foul trouble and still Phoenix couldn't do better than a 41-41 tie at break. Then Shawn Marion finally joined the series in the third quarter and eventually helped nudge the Suns into an eight-point lead with 5:43 to go, supported by the Suns' best trapping defense yet on Lamar Odom and Bryant ... and Kobe's obvious hesitation to attack in fear of fouling out.
That eight-point lead, though, was only an 81-73 lead, meaning that the Lakers had again short-circuited the Suns' running game to get the slow pace that they wanted. They did so even though three of their new heroes, all of whom were playing at multiple levels higher than they did during the regular season, scuffling with their first bouts of ineffectiveness: Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton.
So what happens?
First the Lakers unearth a new/old danger man from Kobe's well-rested supporting cast: Devean George reintroduced himself to the playoffs with three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. Then the hosts needed Diaw to miss one of two free throws with 12.6 seconds to go, which still left the Lakers trailing by five. Then they needed Parker, 0-for-7 from the floor entering the fourth quarter, to drain a 3-point heave to cut the Suns' lead to 90-88. Then they needed Steve Nash -- soon to be named as the league's back-to-back MVP -- to slip at midcourt as Parker swiped at the ball to set Bryant loose for the game-tying bucket.
Then they needed Nash to make a bigger gaffe in the extra period.
Nash played through back spasms throughout the final quarter and OT, after tightening up during his usual rest late in the third, but still managed to put the Suns up three with a big triple of his own with 49.8 ticks left. The lead was still one when Nash, dribbling into a double-team at the sideline like he never does, got caught at midcourt again, this time with 6.1 seconds to go. Walton tied Nash up for the jump ball mismatch that would set up Bryant for his latest buzzer magic.
The two turnovers, preceding both of Bryant's big scores, were Nash's only two in 44 minutes.
"It just wasn't meant to be," Nash said.
"We had a lot of misfortunes tonight."
Not for the first time, of course. The Suns' season actually started with a seemingly certain victory over Dallas on Opening Night that disintegrated into an OT loss. Their first game in 2006 was a triple-overtime loss at New York ... followed shortly thereafter by a triple-OT loss in Denver ... followed shortly thereafter by a double-OT home loss to Seattle.
So they know how this feels.
But not really.
"This is way worse than any of those," said Suns forward Brian Grant. "This is when-it-counts time."
Grant, though, actually did know. He's the one Sun who knew before Sunday how painful the playoffs can be at Staples.
"You forget that I was on that Portland team," Grant said. "I know how it feels to walk into this [visitors'] locker room when you've played so well and you can't believe that you lost. It feels pretty similar."
Which is why, in a weird way, this was indeed inevitable.
As inevitable as an wildly unpredictable classic can be.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss