Bryant had been virtually throttled for two games in Boston, a lack of foul calls leaving him testy and unfulfilled, while his team fell behind, 2-0, in the series. Nothing could sour his mood after a tense, generally messy 87-81 victory Tuesday that got the Lakers back in the series.
At a glance, there was plenty for the Lakers to wring their hands over. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol were all but absent. They held the Celtics’ two main stars in check, yet Boston kept the score close right down to the final seconds. And though the Lakers finally enjoyed an advantage in foul shots (34 to 22), they missed 13 of them. Bryant, who scored a game-high 36 points, went to the line 18 times and missed seven.
So there was room for improvement, and good-natured humility.
“It felt like I was in a foreign territory, because I haven’t been there in so long,” Bryant said of his trips to the line. “It’s like somebody took me and just dropped me off in the middle of Shanghai with no translator.”
He added: “At least I got there. So that’s a positive.”
The Lakers were just happy to be back in the series, which the Celtics lead, 2-1. The victory guaranteed them at least two more games, both at Staples Center. Game 4 is Thursday.
Bryant played all but 2 minutes 45 seconds, converted 12 of 20 field goals and helped harass Paul Pierce (6 points) into a 2-for-14 shooting night. Kevin Garnett was similarly out of sorts, making 6 of 21 field goals and finishing with 13 points.
Yet the suspense did not truly end until Pierce’s off-balance 3-pointer bounced off the rim in the final seconds, and purple and gold streamers fluttered down from the rafters.
Boston cut a 7-point deficit to 2 by the 2:41 mark. Sasha Vujacic hit a 3-pointer in the left corner, and Derek Fisher sank two free throws to extend the lead to 83-76 with 1:33 left. The Lakers still needed two clutch shots from Bryant to secure the win.
After a defensive lapse allowed Garnett to drive to an uncontested dunk, Bryant struck back with an 18-footer over Ray Allen. Eddie House hit a 3-pointer around the one-minute mark. Bryant answered with a leaning jumper in the lane for an 87-81 lead with 38 seconds left. House missed a 22-footer and Garnett was called for an offensive foul.
All the Lakers had to do at that point was run out the clock, but even that proved difficult. Odom, who had missed several point-blank layups, unnecessarily drove the lane and was called for an offensive foul with 6.7 seconds left. There was no time for the Celtics to mount a comeback, but the play served as a final reminder that the Lakers are fortunate not to be down, 3-0.
“It was not a beautiful ball game,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, blaming the cross-country travel and the lack of time to recover after Sunday’s game in Boston. “That’s a transition game, from East Coast to West Coast.”
With Odom, Gasol and Derek Fisher combining for just 7 points, the Lakers got a needed boost from Vujacic, who delivered 8 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“Kobe was fantastic, but I thought Vujacic was the key to the game,” said Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, who absorbed his first finals defeat. “I thought we did a great job with Gasol, thought we did a great job on Odom. But Vujacic, he was aggressive, and he deserved what he got.”
Boston lost to the Lakers for the first time in five meetings, counting the regular season. The Celtics fell to 2-8 on the road in the postseason, which could be a concern with two more games here. The Lakers are 9-0 at home in the playoffs and have not lost at Staples Center since March 28.
After Jackson groused about the officiating in Game 2 — for giving the Celtics a 38-10 advantage in free throws — it was Rivers’s turn to take a swipe. Not at the referees, but at Jackson.
Minutes after Jackson opined that Garnett looked “gassed” in the fourth quarter, Rivers was asked to respond. “Well, I’m just surprised he didn’t whine about fouls tonight,” he said.
The game was close all night, which was a wonder considering how much went wrong for the Celtics. Pierce entered the fourth quarter with twice as many fouls (four) as points. He picked up his fifth with 8:56 left to play, for bowling over Jordan Farmar. Allen (25 points) was the only Celtics star to get on track.
Rajon Rondo, the Celtics’ shifty point guard, left the game after spraining his left ankle 44 seconds into the third quarter and did not return until the 7:59 mark of the fourth.
The Celtics made their best run of the night without him, an 8-0 burst in the third that gave them a 51-49 lead, their first since the opening quarter. They took their last lead at 68-66 early in the fourth. Bryant then hit a 3-pointer that gave Lakers the lead for good.
It looked like a missed opportunity for the Celtics. “Either that, or they should have blown us out,” Rivers said.
The change of scenery provided a measure of relief for the Lakers, and seemingly a little more respect from the officials. They enjoyed a 14-2 advantage in foul shots in the first quarter, when they built an early lead. Bryant shot eight free throws, one more than he did in all of Game 2. But Bryant continued to carp at the referees for non-calls and drew a technical foul for the second straight game.
The Lakers took a 43-37 lead into halftime. For the first time in the series, it was the Celtics who looked bewildered. Pierce missed 6 of 7 shots in the half. Garnett missed his first seven attempts and was 1 for 9. Pierce’s only score in the half, a driving reverse, was sandwiched between a blocked shot by Luke Walton and a 3-point air ball.
“Our job is to come out here and get two wins,” Pierce said. “That’s our focus, and we’re not backing down from that.”