BOSTON — It's looking a lot like 2008 again, with Paul Pierce carrying the Celtics to victory in the NBA Finals and leading them to the brink of yet another title.
Pierce scored 27 and the Celtics withstood 38 points from Kobe Bryant to beat the Lakers 92-86 on Sunday night and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 6 is Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and a victory then or in Game 7 on Thursday would give the Celtics a record 18th NBA title.
"You don't want to go out to L.A. down 3-2. It was our biggest game of the year," Pierce said. "We're in a good spot. We have two games in L.A.; now we have to get one."
Pierce was the MVP of the '08 Finals, when the new Big Three beat the Lakers for a record 17th title. Bryant was the Finals MVP last year, when the Lakers beat the Magic to win their 15th title.
Bryant outscored Pierce this time, but the Lakers guard got little help. And when he was most dominant, the Celtics pulled away.
"I wasn't in a personal duel," Pierce said. "I didn't notice that we were going back-and-forth scoring at the time. He's a tough player. He makes shots."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson defended Bryant's attempts to take over the offense.
"He's the kind of guy (where) you ride the hot hand, that's for sure," Jackson said.
With the "Beat L.A!" chant returning, Kevin Garnett scored 18 with 10 rebounds and Rajon Rondo had 18 points, eight assists and five rebounds to help Boston become the first team in the series to win two games in a row. If the Lakers can't do the same at home, the Celtics will improve to 10-2 against them in the Finals, including their win in '08.
Bryant said neither the rivalry nor revenge should be motivating his teammates when they try to stave off elimination.
"Just man up and play. What the hell is the big deal?" he said. "If I have to say something to them, then we don't deserve to be champions. We're down 3-2: Go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that."
Bryant did everything he could to keep the Lakers in it.
He scored 23 straight from the 4:23 mark of the second quarter until 2:16 left in the third. But that's when the Celtics built their biggest lead, from one point to 13.
Pierce was having his best game of the series, too.
The Celtics captain scored seven in the last 3½ minutes of the second quarter and added nine more in the first five minutes of the third. Ray Allen made two baskets that gave Boston a 71-58 lead with 3:08 left in the third.
But the Lakers were confident.
Jackson, wearing a microphone for TV, told his players in a late timeout: "This team loses more games in the fourth quarter than any team in the league. They know how to lose games, and they're showing us that now."
The Lakers got within six several times but never within five until Bryant hit three free throws to make it 87-82 with 90 seconds left.
The Celtics got a break when Allen's 3-pointer appeared to miss the rim as the shot clock expired. The officials discussed the play, which couldn't be reviewed, and said the ball nicked the rim. The Celtics got the ball with a fresh 24 seconds and 1:05 left. Rasheed Wallace missed a 3-pointer, but the rebound wound up tied up between the 6-foot-11 Garnett and 6-foot-1 Derek Fisher.
Fisher won, tipping the ball to Bryant, who passed to Ron Artest for a breakaway; he was fouled, and he missed both free throws. Then Bryant grabbed the rebound, but Pierce ripped it out of his arms and dribbled off to the side to call timeout.
A desperate inbounds pass went to Pierce, who fed Rondo under the basket before falling out of bounds, and Rondo made an over-the-head layup to make it 89-82 with 36 seconds left.
"I was just showing off my Randy Moss and my (Tom) Brady the whole play," Pierce said. "I was Randy when I caught it; then Brady on my pass to Rondo."
Bryant missed a series of desperation 3-pointers down the stretch, and when Allen made two free throws with 19 seconds left and Garnett one with 8.9 to play, it was over.
Pau Gasol scored 12 with 12 rebounds and Fisher scored all nine of his points in the first quarter as no other Laker reached double figures in scoring until Gasol hit a free throw with 2:25 left.
|Celtics lead series 3-2|
|Celtics lead series 3-2|
L.A. LAKERS (86): Artest 2-9 1-4 7, Gasol 5-12 2-3 12, Bynum 3-6 0-1 6, Fisher 2-9 5-5 9, Bryant 13-27 8-9 38, Odom 4-6 0-2 8, Farmar 0-4 1-2 1, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Vujacic 2-5 0-0 5, Walton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-78 17-26 86.
BOSTON (92): Pierce 12-21 1-2 27, Garnett 6-11 6-7 18, Perkins 2-2 0-2 4, Rondo 9-12 0-0 18, R.Allen 5-10 2-2 12, T.Allen 2-6 0-0 4, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Wallace 2-4 0-0 5, Robinson 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 40-71 9-13 92.
3-Point Goals—L.A. Lakers 7-19 (Bryant 4-10, Artest 2-5, Vujacic 1-2, Farmar 0-1, Fisher 0-1), Boston 3-12 (Pierce 2-4, Wallace 1-2, Robinson 0-2, R.Allen 0-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—L.A. Lakers 43 (Gasol 12), Boston 48 (Garnett 10). Assists—L.A. Lakers 12 (Bryant 4), Boston 21 (Rondo 8). Total Fouls—L.A. Lakers 22, Boston 23. Technicals—Fisher, R.Allen, Rondo, Boston defensive three second. A—18,624 (18,624).
Hawks hire drew: Larry Drew, 52, was officially named coach, just two days after several news organizations reported the team had selected Mike Woodson's top assistant to fill the post. This is Drew's first head coaching job. Woodson coached the Hawks for six seasons but was fired last month after a second-round sweep by the Magic.