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Back from the dread

Bryant plays like an MVP down the stretch and Vujacic comes through with 20 points off the bench as Lakers cut deficit to 2-1.

June 11, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in the mess of an NBA Finals game, after the fouls finished stacking up alongside the airballs and missed free throws, a clear, indelible image finally emerged.

The Lakers weren't dead yet.

It sure looked like they were done, but it was merely a deception, an illusion, as Phil Jackson might call it, the Lakers answering three uninspired quarters with a lasting fourth-quarter push in an 87-81 Game 3 victory Tuesday at Staples Center.

Kobe Bryant had 36 points, Sasha Vujacic had 20 and the Lakers sliced the Celtics' series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Thursday at Staples Center.

It wasn't poetic or lyrical, but it was a victory badly needed by the Lakers.

Deciding that a 3-0 series deficit wouldn't be the best thing for their psyche, or the franchise's chase of a 15th championship, the Lakers outscored the Celtics in the fourth quarter, 27-19.

They beat Boston, finally, after two lopsided regular-season losses to them and two more to start the Finals.

Of greater import, Bryant emerged from a 35-for-95 (36.8%) shooting slump against the Celtics this season, making 12 of 20 shots (60%), including two that mattered significantly in the end.

To his surprise, there were no double-teams on him in the final minutes.

To his delight, he made the Celtics pay.

"It was single coverage," he said. "At that point, it's my responsibility to put the ball in the hole."

He did, and the Lakers improved to 15-0 at Staples Center since a March 28 loss to Memphis, 9-0 in the playoffs.

Still, there were numbers that yelled out why they were in a predicament in the first place, despite a pair of gruesome shooting nights from Paul Pierce (six points on two-for-14 shooting) and Kevin Garnett (13 points on six-for-21 shooting).

Lamar Odom had another forgettable night, totaling four points, five fouls and five turnovers. Pau Gasol was also a non-factor until a pair of tip-ins in the final minutes, finishing with nine points and 12 rebounds.

Bryant made only 11 of 18 free-throw attempts (61.1%), the Lakers only 21 of 34 as a team (61.8%).

"It felt like I was in a foreign territory because I haven't been there in so long," Bryant said. "It's like somebody took me and just dropped me off in the middle of Shanghai with no translator . . . and no dictionary."

Bryant, along with the Lakers, managed to navigate out of it.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Bryant was doing his part with 32 points, but Odom, Gasol and Derek Fisher each had four. The other starter, Vladimir Radmanovic, had three points.

Lucky for them, Vujacic had 17 points at the time. Even luckier, the Lakers were actually winning, 73-68, after trailing going into the fourth quarter, 62-60.

"It was not a beautiful ballgame," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "Hopefully both of us will play better basketball on Thursday night."

Jackson, however, had kinder words for Bryant when asked how they eventually grasped victory in such a choppy, uneven game.

"I think undoubtedly, it's the leadership of Kobe Bryant out there," he said. "He was aggressive right from the start. Obviously, they caught up and went by us, but we stayed aggressive out there and Kobe as very instrumental in that."

Bryant's 19-footer while moving to his left gave the Lakers an 85-78 lead with 1:06 to play. Eddie House answered with a three-pointer, but Bryant's leaner in the lane, after faking Ray Allen out of the way, meant an 87-81 Lakers lead with 38 seconds left.

Adding to the Celtics' Game 3 woes was a sprained left ankle sustained by point guard Rajon Rondo, who had 16 assists in Game 2. He was injured 44 seconds into the third quarter and returned to play an ineffective few minutes in the fourth quarter.

"We had a chance to steal a game here when our guys were off," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said.

Close but no cigar, to play off of Celtics imagery.

The score was tied after the first quarter, 20-20, even though the Lakers were granted 14 free-throw attempts to only two for the Celtics.

Thanks to Vujacic's nine points in the second quarter, the Lakers held a 43-37 halftime lead.

The Lakers scored only 17 points in the third quarter, leading to a rarity. Jackson called two timeouts in a quarter.

"You know I wasn't feeling good about it," he said.

Then came the fourth, and Jackson felt better.

A series was again a series. The Lakers were still breathing.


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