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.
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 Wednesday at the team's practice facility in suburban El Segundo. "We've seen some dark days around here."
Starting guard Derek 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.
The Lakers put the Spurs in a must-win situation Tuesday night by winning 93-91 for San Antonio's first homecourt loss in the postseason after seven wins.
San Antonio appeared a step slow at times, with the Lakers' 26-4 advantage in second-chance points a key to the game.
"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."
Parker is the only member of the San Antonio rotation who's under 30, so perhaps fatigue was a factor. But coach Gregg Popovich bristled last week when the Spurs' age was brought up after they blew a 20-point lead in Game 1, saying: "When we win, we're the experienced team. When we lose, we're older than dirt. That's just silly."
Popovich said before Wednesday afternoon's flight to Los Angeles that the Spurs needed to let go of the Game 4 loss.
"If you don't let it go, you can't focus on the game (Thursday night), the task at hand," he said. "So by the time we land in LA, it will be gone and we'll be concentrating on just talking about what we can do to win basketball games.
"I've always said that you have to have some good fortune. And good fortune means a bad shot might go in, maybe you get a good call, maybe you get a good whistle."
The Spurs didn't get a good whistle in the late going Tuesday night, after Fisher made contact with San Antonio's Brent Barry before Barry unloaded a desperation 3-pointer that didn't come close.
To a man, the Spurs said they didn't expect a foul to be called in that situation.
Of course, the Lakers didn't get a good whistle seconds earlier, when a jumper by Fisher appeared to tick the rim, and Los Angeles ultimately lost possession with 2.1 seconds left because of a shot-clock violation.
The Spurs probably need a big effort from Ginobili to extend the series. The NBA's sixth man of the year shot 9-for-15 and scored 30 points in San Antonio's 103-84 victory in Game 3, but went a combined 7-for-29 for a total of 24 points in the other three games all losses.
"Couple of shots didn't fall in," Ginobili said. "Of course, I always give (the Lakers) credit they played good defense."
Bryant smiled when asked about not attempting a single free throw in Game 4.
"I don't know about that," he said. "That's one of the mysteries of the world."