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GAME 3: LAKERS 87, CELTICS 81

Back from the dread

They roll with the punches from the Man and the Machine

June 11, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

They won, right?

I mean, this counts and everything, right?

The most appropriate chant was "Air-ball," and the most spectacular dunks were the ones they missed.

Pau Gasol shot a ball over the backboard, Kobe Bryant kicked a missed free throw to the referee, and Lamar Odom scored exactly two more baskets than you.

But they still won, right?

The Lakers' 87-81 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Tuesday is official, correct?

Indeed it is, a fact initially confirmed with 38 seconds left when Lakers executive Jeanie Buss jumped into a Staples Center aisle and began dancing.

A second confirmation appeared at the final buzzer, when Boston's Kevin Garnett looked up into the darkened ceiling and began screaming.

The Lakers won. And when they awaken today after sleeping off the bricks and blunders, none of them will care how.

"It was not a beautiful ballgame," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. But he was smiling when he said it.

The Lakers have finally bared their knuckles in a Finals that is starting to look like a mixed-martial arts brawl, and the results were tattered and terrific.

Eight minutes from falling behind an historically insurmountable three games to none, they charged back to win their first Finals game and come to their first Finals realization. They're not the only ones who can stink.

It was to their eternal benefit that on this night, the Celtics played even worse.

Paul Pierce made two shots, Garnett six. They shot 35% and looked exhausted doing it.

Still, with seven minutes left, the Celtics led by two points, at which point the weary and desperate Lakers rolled up their sleeves and threw the only jabs they had left.

The Man and The Machine.

The Man is, of course, Bryant, who scored nine points in the final seven minutes, carrying the Lakers home on the strong shoulders of an MVP.

The Machine is, well, Sasha Vujacic. Seriously. That's his nickname, a moniker bestowed as much for irony as performance. He's the sort of machine invented by a nutty professor, sometimes running amazingly smooth, other times smoking and sputtering and clanking to a halt.

On this night, he was the most brilliant of contraptions, scoring 20 points, hitting three three-pointers, keeping the Lakers upright when they should have been flat.

"We didn't play a great game, we didn't play not even good," he said in his distinct Slovenian diction. "We were just fighting, and that was the key."

Before the fourth quarter, that fight could have been between The Man and The Machine.

Moments before the Lakers' comeback, Vujacic threw up a quick three-point attempt that clanged off the rim as an open and angry Bryant gestured and bellowed.

"He's a little bit of a rock head," Jackson said.

Then he became a little bit of a hero. Vujacic hit a jump shot to tie the game, and then, with 1:53 remaining, he hit a three-pointer to give the Lakers a five-point lead.

"Those are the shots I live for, honestly," he said. "It's fun when you're not playing good, but you're fighting and you have your crowd behind you."

The crowd wasn't the only thing behind the Lakers.

The officials, seemingly acting on the anger of Commissioner Jackson after Game 2, gave the Lakers every early call.

Remember how Jackson railed that the Celtics shot 19 free throws in the first half when the Lakers shot only two?

On Tuesday, in the first quarter, the Lakers won the free-throw battle by an eerily similar margin of 14-2.

By the end of the game, the Lakers had shot 12 more free throws, so everything is even until the next coach complains.

If this sounds like the perception of NBA officiating in this series will be an issue every night of the Finals, well, blame it on something that happened 3,000 miles away.

Hours before the game began at Staples Center, a letter was filed in a Brooklyn federal court essentially alleging that the Lakers' 2002 championship run was fixed.

The allegations came from former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who is awaiting sentencing on a gambling conviction.

According to the letter, the sixth game of a 2002 playoff series was fixed in order for the series to stretch to seven games. The only seven-game series in the 2002 playoffs was the Lakers' Western Conference final showdown against the Sacramento Kings.

And, indeed, Game 6 of that series was the most controversial Lakers playoff game in years, the Lakers benefiting from dozens of questionable calls before winning.

Everyone acted like they had heard about the letter Tuesday, the players pushing and shoving each other around while the fans howled and argued at seemingly every call.

The Finals have gotten nasty, and is only going to get nastier.

Can the pretty Lakers survive this kind of series?

They won, right?

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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