The Lakers moved within one win of repeating as NBA champions with a convincing 100-86 victory over the 76ers, whose once-proud pulse can barely be heard.
Shaquille O'Neal mauled his way to 34 points and 14 rebounds and a suffocating defense -- often obscured by glamour and glitz -- made sure there was no comeback by the Sixers, who again went down early and played uphill virtually the entire game.
"I'm on a mission," O'Neal said. "I'm very focused."
"He makes the game very simple," Bryant said.
As Bryant left the First Union Center after Sunday's Game Three win, he told an onlooker, "We're going to cut their hearts out." The Philadelphia native did his share of slashing, mostly with drives through the defense, and finished with 19 points.
Bryant also added 10 rebounds and nine assists in an outstanding all-around game. He has been the key in this series as the Lakers have won whenever he has played well.
No one stuck in the dagger deeper than the reserves for the Lakers, who played perfectly off O'Neal with a flurry of 3-pointers in the second and fourth quarters. Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Ron Harper and Tyronn Lue all struck at least once from the arc. Los Angeles was 10-of-19 from long range.
"The second unit that came in the form of Horry and Shaw and Tyronn really saw the game to the end," Jackson said.
"I think our bench gets motivated by people saying we don't have a bench," Bryant said. "They come in and do an excellent job for us."
O'Neal took his forceful game right to Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo, who finally appeared to back down a bit. O'Neal made 13-of-25 shots and had five dunks, including one that stopped another inevitable fourth-quarter surge by the Sixers.
"Nobody ever said that Mutombo's gonna step on the floor and Shaq is not gonna get his dunk," Mutombo said. "The way he's playing, he's going to get his dunk."
After a pair of dunks in the first quarter, O'Neal shot a glance at his father in the stands.
"He taught me everything I know," O'Neal said. "He taught me my ferocity. He taught me how to play the game. He taught me what to do tonight. He's like my Sega joystick up there."
"He was very aggressive," Jackson said. "I thought that he played hard."
The 7-1, 330-pound O'Neal also played smart, collecting five assists and staying out of foul trouble.
"I think you've heard me for three games," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "The guy's the best. He's playing against a hell of a player in Dikembe. But he's phenomenal."
"Whole lot of Shaquille O'Neal," Sixers superstar Allen Iverson said. "That's all it was, a whole lot of Shaquille O'Neal. ... You got somebody that big sitting in the middle of the lane, I mean, what can you do?" There has been plenty of talk about the heart of the Sixers but they would have served themselves better by playing with their heads. With poor shot selection and botched fast breaks, they made dozens of poor decisions, many by superstar Allen Iverson.
Iverson scored 35 points but made just 12-of-30 shots. For the first time in the playoffs, the NBA Most Valuable Player could not carry Philadelphia to victory in a must-win game.
"It's been a long, tough year," said Iverson, whose defiance wavered for the first time in this series.
After losing the opener at home, the Lakers have outclassed the Sixers three straight times and are one win from completing the best postseason run in NBA history. They can do it in Game Five on Friday.
"I know this is going to be an animated place on Friday night," Jackson said. "The game won't be anything like it was tonight. It will be a totally different ballgame."
"I'm not gonna give up and I don't expect my team will give up," Brown said.
That may not matter anymore. LA improved to 7-0 on the road in the playoffs, tying the single-season mark for consecutive road wins set by the 1995 Houston Rockets.
"It's remarkable that we've won as many games that we've won in the playoff situation on the road this year," Jackson said. "I think it says something about the character of this team."
Derek Fisher chipped in 10 points for the Lakers, who shot 50 percent (36-of-72), held a 43-37 edge on the glass and led by as many as 22 points.
Mutombo had 19 points and nine rebounds for the Sixers, who shot 43 percent (33-of-77), including 1-of-6 from the arc.
Bryant's three-point play and breakaway dunk gave the Lakers their largest lead at 70-48 with 3:34 left in the third period. The Sixers still trailed by 20 points until Tyrone Hill closed the quarter with a layup.
That triggered a 13-0 burst that had the First Union Center crowd rocking for the first time. Aaron McKie's free throw cut it to 77-70 with just under nine minutes to go as Jackson -- who already had called one timeout -- refused to call another.
"It gives them a sense of being able to survive tough situations," Jackson said. "I like my teams to have a head about themselves on the floor, a collective head. We can cover a lot of things. We can jerk things around. Ultimately, they have to make the decisions on the court."
"He's not gonna call a timeout," O'Neal said. "We're just gonna have to work through that. We've been working through that all year. Phil's a great coach in that sense."
The Lakers responded like champions. O'Neal's final dunk was followed by 3-pointers by Shaw, Lue and Horry, rebuilding the lead to 88-71 with 6:40 to play. The crowd was heading for the exits shortly thereafter.
"We dig such deep holes for ourselves and we always find ourselves in the situation where you've got to fight back so long and so hard that it takes so much out of you," said McKie, who scored just five points on 1-of-9 shooting.
It could have been a lot worse as the Lakers played the opening of the first two quarters in a fog. In both periods, it took them nearly four minutes to make a basket.
However, once they got going, there was little stopping them. O'Neal hammered consecutive dunks over Mutombo and Fisher went in alone for a steal, capping an 11-0 surge that made it 14-6 with 4:21 left in the first quarter.
Sixers forward George Lynch made his first appearance of the series less than 30 seconds later and was entirely ineffective on his broken left foot. When Bryant followed in a miss by O'Neal with 1:42 to go, the Sixers were down 10 -- 20-10 -- for the fourth straight game.
Philadelphia went to a trap at the outset of the second quarter and pulled within 26-22 before LA regrouped. Harper had five straight Lakers points before 3-pointers by Horry, Harper and Lue made it 46-29 with 3:31 remaining before halftime.
At the worst possible time, the Sixers played their worst half of the series. They trailed 51-37 after shooting 34 percent (12-of-35), missing six free throws and getting pounded on the boards, 26-15.
"I don't think the first half we played too intelligently," Brown said. "They had a lot to do with that."
The frustration continued in the third quarter. Philadelphia began with a turnover and could not score out of its set offense as Los Angeles cut off passing lanes and blocked shots. Iverson was hit with a technical foul with 8:23 to go.