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Monday, June 16, 2008

AP Finds 5K Horse Deaths Since '03

In this May 3, 2008, file photo, track personnel try to hold down Eight Belles after the 134th... Expand
(AP)
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Thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. reported more than three horse deaths a day last year and 5,000 since 2003, and the vast majority were put down after suffering devastating injuries on the track, according to an Associated Press survey.

Countless other deaths went unreported because of lax record keeping, the AP found in the broadest such review to date.

The catastrophic breakdown of filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby last month made the fragility of a half-ton horse vivid for the millions watching, but the AP found that such injuries occur regularly in every racing state. Tracks in California and New York, which rank first and sixth in thoroughbred races, combine to average more than one thoroughbred death for every day of the year.

Questions about breeding, medication, synthetic surfaces versus dirt and other safety issues have dogged the industry for some time, and a congressional panel has asked key players in the sport to testify this week about its direction, particularly the influence of steroids.

The AP compiled its figures from responses to open records inquiries sent to the organizations that govern the sport in the 29 states identified by Equibase Co., a clearinghouse for race results, as having had at least 1,000 thoroughbreds start a race last year.

Arkansas, Michigan, Nebraska said their organizations don't track fatalities at all, and only one of Florida's three main thoroughbred tracks provided numbers. There were wide differences among the other states in what types of deaths are monitored and how far back the records go.

"Nobody really knows how big of a problem it is," said Rick Arthur, California's equine medical director. "They just know it's a big problem."

When a horse breaks a leg — let alone two, as Eight Belles did — often the only choice is to euthanize the animal. A thoroughbred's bones are thinner than most breeds. Usually it's not possible for the horse to lie down for long periods because that could disrupt the blood flow to the arteries in the lower limb, causing an extremely painful hoof infection called laminitis.

Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006, broke down in the Preakness and was euthanized with laminitis several months later after a gallant effort to save him.

Despite the regularity of such breakdowns and the money involved in the sport, no one is certain how many horses are lethally injected on the nation's tracks each year. The Jockey Club, which registers all North American thoroughbreds, did not know of another comprehensive, state-by-state tally of fatalities at tracks before the AP's, said Bob Curran, a Jockey Club vice president.

Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who made the grim announcement that Eight Belles had been euthanized after the Derby, said fatality numbers don't seem to be dropping, despite major medical advancements. To Bramlage, that suggests racing injuries are becoming more frequent because vets are already pulling the most injury-prone horses before post time.

"We're able to pick them up better, with digital X-rays, bone scans and MRIs, which give us the information we need to take those horses out of training," Bramlage said. "In spite of that fact, we're not denting the total number of deaths."

California officials became alarmed in 2005 when the number of thoroughbred racing deaths there spiked by nearly 50 percent from just two years earlier. Last year, 314 horses — 261 of them thoroughbreds — died at California's tracks, including those hurt in training or barn accidents, and a few that suffered other injuries or medical complications.

"Just seeing the totals and the recurrent theme, it's eye-opening," said Bon Smith, assistant director of the California Horse Racing Board.

Beginning this year, California has mandated that all its major tracks replace their dirt surface with a synthetic mixture found in some studies to be safer for horses and jockeys.

While California's thoroughbred fatalities are nearly triple those reported by any other state, its warm weather and bounty of tracks make it the nation's busiest racing state. And it has received high praise across the industry for the way in which it tracks deaths — every death that occurs on the public grounds of a California racetrack is recorded in detail, largely through veterinary reports.

Some other major racing states have no records of fatalities that occur during morning training exercises, even those that happen on the tracks where races are run in the afternoon. Kentucky listed 228 deaths since 2003, but none of them from training accidents, which in some states that track them account for nearly a third of the total.

Other states, such as Colorado and Iowa, run mixed breed meets, in which quarterhorses might appear in one race a day while thoroughbreds make up most of the rest. Often, these states list the deaths only by meet, not breed, although veterinarians say the more muscular torsos and spindly ankles of thoroughbreds make them more susceptible to injury.

Many states that do closely track horse deaths haven't been doing it for long. New Mexico counted 52 deaths in 2007, but its racing commission said it had no records before that.

Some states that do monitor deaths don't differentiate between horses that die in freak accidents in their barns, for instance — the consensus is that such deaths are rare — and those that break down training or racing and are destroyed.

Such discrepancies have made the task difficult for Mary Scollay, a veterinarian at two Florida racetracks who has created a uniform national injury reporting system that aims to record every thoroughbred fatality. Scollay, who next month will become Kentucky's equine medical director, said 65 tracks are participating in the program now, but only 30 have compiled a full year's worth of data.

She declined to release the preliminary numbers, explaining the sample size is still too small to draw conclusions. It could take years, Scollay said, before major trends can be identified.

"Certainly we know more than we did last year at this time, and one fatal injury is one too many," Scollay said. "We know we need to do better. I think within the last few weeks, there's been a mobilization of the industry to do some pretty serious things."

Those who own and handle the animals stand to lose plenty when a horse is put down.

Timothy Capps, a professor at the University of Louisville's equine industry program, said most racehorses don't carry mortality insurance. The ones that do typically carry only a fraction of their projected value as a stallion or mare, Capps said.

After the gruesome breakdown of Eight Belles, the Jockey Club created a national panel to examine safety, and the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority did the same on the state level.

Among the topics being reviewed are track surfaces, medication (particularly steroids), the use of the whip by riders, and whether — as Bramlage suggests — thoroughbreds are becoming less durable because they're being bred to emphasize speed rather than stamina early in their careers.

"Those that do get hurt maybe get hurt worse because of their speed and size," said Larry Jones, who trained Eight Belles. "A good big horse will outrun a good little horse, and they can be more fragile because their legs and joints have to hold a lot more."

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has asked states for the figures they have on fatalities ahead of a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Of particular interest to Congress is the influence of steroids, which were legal this spring in most racing states including Kentucky, Maryland and New York — which host the Triple Crown races.

Those advocating a steroid crackdown got ammunition when Big Brown, who easily won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with the steroid Winstrol still in his bloodstream, ran the Belmont without it and finished last.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said steroids should be banned — not regulated — in horse racing but questions whether the sport has the ability to police itself.

"There are enough people I have great respect for who say this industry is really beginning to be in trouble," Whitfield said.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said the sport gets a bad rap for what he believes it does best — take care of the animals.

"There isn't a trainer worth his salt that doesn't look into this 24 hours a day," Lukas said. "I'll guarantee you that if any one of those purists who feel like it's an abusive sport would spend two weeks in my barn, they'd walk away a different person and have a greater appreciation for the care. Animals don't have a say in it, but when they get to this level, they have a pretty good deal going."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Tiger puts away Mediate on 91st hole to win U.S. Open

SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods cradled the silver U.S. Open trophy in his right hand and limped toward the edge of the Pacific bluffs, each step as much a burden as the 91 holes he played at Torrey Pines for a major that might have been his most amazing yet.

Out of competition for two months because of knee surgery, he won the toughest test in golf.

For the second straight day, Woods came to the 18th hole one shot behind and stood over a birdie putt to avoid a shocking collapse.

His knee throbbing and heart pounding, he delivered. He always does.

An epic U.S. Open finally ended Monday afternoon on the 19th hole of a playoff when Woods outlasted a gritty Rocco Mediate for a victory that surprised even him.

"I think this is probably the best ever," Woods said. "All things considered, I don't know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you. It was a long week. A lot of doubt, a lot of questions going into the week. And here we are, 91 holes later."

Now the greater question is his future.

All week, Woods had managed to mask the pain, walking with an almost imperceptible limp. Finally, he could give in to it. Walking toward the bluffs for his last round of interviews, he could barely make it up the hill.

Woods conceded that he risked further damage by playing the U.S. Open, and said it was possible that he had indeed made it worse.

He does not know when he will play next, even uncertain whether he will show up at Royal Birkdale in five weeks for the British Open to continue his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Torrey Pines was Woods' 14th major and made him the only player besides Nicklaus to win the career Grand Slam three times over.

"I think this is probably the best ever," Woods said. "All things considered, I don't know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you. It was a long week. A lot of doubt, a lot of questions going into the week. And here we are, 91 holes later."

Now the greater question is his future.

All week, Woods had managed to mask the pain, walking with an almost imperceptible limp. Finally, he could give in to it. Walking toward the bluffs for his last round of interviews, he could barely make it up the hill.

U.S. Open Final Scores

T-1. Tiger Woods (-1)*
T-1. Rocco Mediate (-1)
3. Lee Westwood (E)
T-4. Robert Karlsson (+2)
T-4. D.J. Trahan (+2)

* -- Won on 19th playoff hole.

Complete scores

Woods conceded that he risked further damage by playing the U.S. Open, and said it was possible that he had indeed made it worse.

He does not know when he will play next, even uncertain whether he will show up at Royal Birkdale in five weeks for the British Open to continue his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Torrey Pines was Woods' 14th major and made him the only player besides Nicklaus to win the career Grand Slam three times over.

"I think I need to shut it down for a little bit," Woods said. "It's a bit sore. I need to take a little bit of a break."

It might take that long for this victory to sink in.

Caught in a tussle with Mediate, a 45-year-old with a creaky back and no fear, Woods blew a three-shot lead with eight holes to play before rallying with a birdie to send this 18-hole playoff into overtime.

On the verge of one of golf's great upsets, Mediate instead became another victim.

He had a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to win -- not many players get a chance like that against Woods -- and pulled it just slightly.

"I just yanked it a touch," Mediate said. "But I can't really complain. I did the best I could."

Woods reached the green in two and his 45-foot eagle putt rolled some four feet past the hole. He backed off the putt when a seagull's shadow crossed over his line, then watched it tumble in for birdie. Both Woods and Mediate finished at even-par 71.

Going to the seventh hole for sudden death, Mediate drove left into a bunker, pulled that shot to the edge of the bleachers, chipped 18 feet past the hole and missed the par putt.

"Great fight," Woods told him as they embraced on the green.

Playoff Princes

Tiger Woods has been nearly unbeatable in playoffs in his career. Here's how his total victories on the PGA Tour stack up in the last half-century:

Nowhere To Go But Up
W-L
Jack Nicklaus 13-10
Arnold Palmer 12-8
Tiger Woods 11-1
Phil Mickelson 9-5
Vijay Singh 8-4
Tom Watson 8-4

It was almost more than Woods could handle, yet he escaped again. He won the U.S. Open for the third time, and the first since it was last held on a public course at Bethpage Black in 2002.

"I'm glad I'm done," Woods said. "I really don't feel like playing anymore."

Mediate's odyssey began two weeks ago when he had to survive a sudden-death playoff simply to qualify for this U.S. Open. Even more unlikely was going toe-to-toe with Woods -- whom Mediate referred to as a "monster" -- and nearly slaying him.

Mediate struggled to keep his emotions after taking bogey on the first extra hole, but he walked off Torrey Pines with 12,000 new friends who crammed both sides of every fairway for a playoff that was tighter than anyone imagined.

"Obviously, I would have loved to win," he said. "I don't know what else to say. They wanted a show, they got one."

Did they ever.

From the opening tee shot Thursday in a light fog known as "June Gloom," this U.S. Open simply shined.

"The atmosphere is what kept me going," Woods said. "The tournament, being a major championship here at Torrey Pines, all the people, it could have very easily ... I couldn't ever quit in front of these people. It wasn't going to happen."

The week was filled with some of Woods' greatest moments in a major -- a 30 on the back nine Friday to get into the mix, two eagles from a combined 100 feet and a chip-in birdie on Saturday to take the lead, and one of the biggest putts of his career when he holed a 12-foot birdie with the final stroke of regulation to force the playoff.

Movin' Up The Charts

Only 32 years old, Tiger Woods keeps rewriting the all-time record books. His win at Torrey Pines only added to the legend.

Most Professional Majors Won
Jack Nicklaus 18
Tiger Woods 14
Walter Hagen 11
Most U.S. Open Wins
Jack Nicklaus 4
Ben Hogan 4
Bobby Jones 4
Willie Anderson 4
Hale Irwin 3
Tiger Woods 3
Most PGA Tour Wins
Sam Sneed 82
Jack Nicklaus 73
Tiger Woods 65
Ben Hogan 64
Arnold Palmer 62
Won Major Four Straight Years
Tiger Woods 2005-08
Tiger Woods 1999-02
Tom Watson 1980-83
Jack Nicklaus 1970-73
Walter Hagen 1924-29

Then came a playoff in which he built a three-shot lead with eight holes to play, only to find himself trailing four holes later.

"You just keep pushing and pushing," Woods said. "And I did, all week."

Woods seized control when Mediate bogeyed consecutive holes around the turn, but Woods bogeyed the next two from the bunker and Mediate tied him by nearly driving the 267-yard 14th hole and chipping to a foot for birdie.

Then the playoff took yet another surprising turn on the 15th.

Woods hit his tee shot so far to the right that it landed in a fairway bunker along the adjoining ninth fairway. But he carved a 7-iron from 170 yards around the trees to 12 feet, one of those defining shots that turns a tournament in his favor.

But not this time. Mediate dropped in a 25-foot birdie putt, while Woods missed and spent the next three holes in a desperate chase to make up ground until he did on the last hole.

"I never quit. I never quit," Mediate said. "I've been beaten down a few times and came back, and I got what I wanted. I got a chance to beat the best player in the world. And I came up just a touch short."

It was the second time Woods has won a PGA Tour event and a U.S. Open on the same course -- Pebble Beach in 2000 and Torrey Pines, where in January he won by eight shots for his sixth Buick Invitational title.

He now has won eight times at Torrey Pines, including a Junior World Championship.

It was his 65th career victory, passing Ben Hogan for third all time. Woods raised his playoff record to 15-2 and made it 14-of-14 in majors when he had at least a share of the lead going into the final round.

He now has won every major in a playoff except for the British Open.

Just like the last U.S. Open playoff seven years ago, both players arrived wearing the same outfit -- khaki trousers and a white shirt at Southern Hills, black slacks and a red shirt with a black vest at Torrey Pines.

That's typical for Woods, and when he saw Mediate, Woods removed his vest.

It felt like a prize fight the way both players marched through a wall of fans and onto the first tee, posing before the silver U.S. Open trophy. And it finished that way, too.

"With everybody in the world all looking in, and everyone expecting me to get my [behind] handed to me, and I didn't," Mediate said. "And I almost got it done. I almost got it done."

Woods raised his arms like a heavyweight champion walking off the first tee, but only because he found the fairway for the first time all week. He had double bogeyed it three of the previous four days.

Mediate flipped his club to the front of the tee box when he came within inches of an ace on the par-3 third.

Back and forth they went, Woods building an early lead with consecutive birdies, Mediate refusing to go away. But when Mediate three-putted from 15 feet for bogey on the ninth, and Woods holed a 20-foot par putt from the fringe on the next hole to go three shots ahead, it looked as though this playoff would turn into another snoozer.

Then it was Woods who faltered, and Mediate caught a second wind. It set up a fabulous finish, just like everything else this week on the public course in the tony hamlet of La Jolla that translates to "The Jewel."

"It was just unreal," Woods said. "It was back and forth, back and forth. And 90 holes wasn't enough."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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Man takes golf ball to stomach


Pictured: Superstar matador gets gored by TWO angry bulls

Matador Jose Tomas had a lucky escape yesterday when he was gored not once, but TWICE during a bullfight in Madrid.

The 32-year-old, who is widely considered one of the best bullfighters of all time, was competing at the Las Ventas bullring in the Spanish capital when he sustained his injuries.

Tomas, who received medical treatment at the scene, sustained one groin injury that looked exceptionally painful.Ouch: Matador Jose Tomas is gored in a sensitive spot by the second bull

Just two weeks ago, Tomas survived another goring during a bullfight at the 'El Coso de los Califas' ring in Cordoba.

Following that incident, veteran critic Juan Belmonte of Canal Sur television in Seville said that success in bullfighting is a question of having a unique style, a personal flair that breaks the mould that usually makes one matador virtually indistinguishable from the next - and in this Tomas excels.

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Blood sport: Jose Tomas is tossed in the air, top, before being gored for a second time, bottom

Tomas gets up very close to the bull - both before luring it into a charge and as it rumbles by - and looks relaxed and natural in his bravado, showing utter disregard for all the danger, Belmonte said.

He added, 'You realise that the guy out there gives the impression that he does not care if he dies right then.'

Tomas left bullfighting behind in 2002, at the peak of his career, without saying why, and returned to the sport a year ago.

He told the newspaper El Pais in May last year that he was coming back because 'living without bullfighting is not living'.

Awkward situation, above. But Tomas is known for his fearlessness.
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Lakers only delay the inevitable

GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP/Getty Images
Coach Phil Jackson's Lakers made just enough adjustments to survive in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Sunday. Don't count on the same outcome in Game 6 on Tuesday, writes NBCSports.com contributor

OPINION

So they did it. The Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title, the first championship for the legendary franchise since 1986, their 17th overall and ….

Hey! What's all that noise back there! Can't you see I’m trying to write a great story about this Celtics championship. What? Oh. You're kidding. Really? The Lakers won Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles on Sunday, narrowing the series to 3-2 Boston?

Paul Pierce scored 38 points, but he was held off along with the Celtics by Kobe Byant with 25, Lamar "Sleepy" Odom with 20 points and 11 rebounds and Pau "Softy" Gasol with 19 points and 13 rebounds?

I guess it's true because everyone is saying it, but this is just a matter of time now. If you saw Game 5 — heck if you've seen any of the five games in this NBA championship series — you know Vladimir Radmanovic may be doing more damage to the NBA than Tim Donaghy and that the Celtics have been the better team and are going to win this series.

"I know I didn't want to see the Celtics celebrating in my home floor with champagne and all that crap," said Gasol, who peeled off his soft as down feather reputation for one game and muscled Kevin Garnett to the basket and into game-long foul trouble. "I definitely didn't want to see that. We played well. We didn't play our best game, but we played our hearts out."

The Lakers did, even if the hearts of the home fans seemed to stop beating again as after losing Game 4 after running up a 24-point lead, this time the Lakers looked like they'd lose Game 5 and the series after bolting out to an early 19-point lead.

But you also got the feeling that after the embarrassment of blowing the biggest lead in Finals history, the Lakers wanted to summon up one more effort to at least make the series appear competitive.

Better to leave town on your own.

"Well, they just played harder," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of his team. "They played harder than the Celtics consistently for the game, and I think that was a big key in the ballgame. They scrapped out rebounds. We won the rebound situation. It was a very close game statistically, though, but possessions were important. I think we had more shots than they did. Those are the type of things that win games that are this close."

Video
Effort key as Lakers win Game 5
June 16: Kobe happy with where Lakers are at while Kevin Garnett admits he played "like garbage" as L.A. forced a Game 6 in Boston.

NBC Sports

It was close again despite still another Lakers first quarter barrage in taking a 39-22 lead. No big deal. The Lakers led by 21 after one quarter Thursday. You know, the Celtics felt they had them where they wanted them. This time, unlike in Game 4, the Celtics virtually erased the lead immediately and cut the Lakers lead to 55-52 at halftime.

"I went in at halftime and said, 'Thank God we don't have a lead,'" Jackson joked. "It's important we don't have something like that because we just don't know what to do with it anyway, and they were able to come out and give it up right off the bat, but scrap back."

But Jackson's gamble with his reserves at the start of the second quarter backfired, and the Lakers lost all the momentum and rhythm they'd used to dominate early. Jackson, ever optimistic, talked after the game about the travel day Monday and another game Tuesday.

Uh, Phil, you were down 3-1.

Reserves tend to play better at home and poorly on the road, though the Celtics bench has been good both places, another reason they've had the edge. So Jackson took a shot with Chris Mihm (who hadn't played since the regular season and now we know why), Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza and Luke Walton. It was a disaster as Pierce drove and scored at will and put the Lakers into the foul bonus less than four minutes into the quarter. Jackson rushed his regulars back and it was all the Lakers could do to cling to a lead at halftime.

Game on.

"First quarter we could have packed up the tent," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Fourth quarter we were down 10, could have packed up the tent. We're going to keep fighting. That's who we've been all year."

The Lakers stuck early to the strategy they'd used in playing Bryant on Rajon Rondo so Bryant could roam on defense and disrupt the Celtics. Rivers had seen enough when Rondo drove uncontested for a layup and with Radmanovic at the basket but not contesting as would be his style against Pierce all game, Rondo inexplicably threw back to Pierce for a three. Rondo played just 15 minutes and starting center Kendrick Perkins, who promised afterward he'd play in Game 6, was in street clothes with a shoulder injury.

"Rondo is just not playing well right now," acknowledged Rivers. "We still believe in him. They're doing a nice job to start games with Kobe guarding him and roaming, and the ball is ending up in his hands. And what we're trying to get him to do is just be aggressive to the basket. Early in the game he had a lay up, I think, that he could have taken, and he's looking to be a passer. He's got to look to make more plays and be aggressive to the basket."

Video
Not impressed
June 16: Christopher Russo is not crazy about the Lakers' performance and says Celtics will win the NBA Finals.

NBC Sports

So the Celtics went to their smaller lineup with James Posey and Eddie House and used P.J. Brown more with Perkins out when Odom and Gasol finally used their size advantage to rebound. That lineup has proven more effectively offensively and probably was the right one again Sunday as it brought the Celtics back from the big deficit with Posey again hitting a late big three.

But without Rondo the Celtics don't handle the ball well, and it forced Pierce into being both the ball handler, distributor and scorer. He was terrific once again and looks like the runaway MVP unless the Lakers stage some sort of improbable comeback.

"A lot of things can happen," Jackson said. "We're young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this."

Certainly dumb enough often it would seem.

Though the Lakers won, they were about to let the Celtics steal another.

Their defense on the pick and roll was atrocious as they failed to trap, and when Bryant would get buried in a screen, lanes to the basket opened likes Moses in the Red Sea. Radmanovic inexplicably played up on Pierce, who waltzed by him to the basket or into easy fouls. The triangle offense was often ineffective again with Gasol and Odom not spacing well because they don't seem to want to take jumpers, Gasol passing up several at the free throw line and Radmanovic taking bad, forced shots.

But this time Jackson made the adjustments which mattered and the Lakers made just enough plays to survive.

Jackson finally ditched Radmanovic at small forward and went with a three-guard lineup with Farmar, Bryant and Derek Fisher, and Bryant made two big steals from Pierce, who didn't sit out until the last few seconds of the game with the Celtics fouling.

"We were getting beat on a Pierce-Garnett screen roll that got higher and higher as they got up towards half court," said Jackson. "They extended our defense and Pierce was able to break us down, we tried to do something different and this time Kobe was available and capable of getting that steal."

That big clincher was with 40 seconds left and the Lakers hanging on 95-93. It appeared Pierce had beaten Bryant after the screen from Garnett, but Bryant poked the ball away and ran out for a slam dunk and 99-95 lead.

"He made a great defensive play," said Pierce. "He reached around and tapped the ball from behind, and it was just a great defensive play. That was pretty much all he could do that Kevin set the pick, so he was struggling. Kobe is a great player. He made two big steals on myself there in the fourth quarter that I shouldn't have allowed. It definitely hurts, tough one to swallow, and we'll just try to get the next one at home. I thought it was great defense. That's all it was, it was good defense. I wouldn't ask the refs for a call down the stretch. You let the players decide the game, and I thought that's what happened."

It was a classy response from Pierce, who has been the best player in this series after being doubted in the NBA for many years. His relentless driving kept the Celtics alive as Garnett was mistake prone down the stretch and sitting out early with fouls, and Ray Allen was controlled.

"My play tonight?" said Garnett. "It was trash. I played like garbage tonight. I can do better and I will."

Once again, Posey hit a big three to pull the Celtics within four with just under six minutes left after the Lakers had led by 14 earlier in the fourth quarter. But Garnett missed one of two free throws with the Celtics down two with 3:54 left and then both free throws with the Celtics down two with 2:31 left. In between that, Bryant knocked the ball loose from Pierce with 3:09 left and the Lakers ahead by three, and it led to a Fisher free throw.

A late House three wasn't enough as the Lakers clinched it with free throws after Bryant's second steal.

"Give them credit," said Rivers. "I thought they made plays. They made tougher plays down the stretch. We had a couple of balls right at the basket in our hands. They took them out of our hands. They blocked our shots. We had great shots. We missed some lay ups, missed some free throws. That's the way it goes."

And so it goes back to Boston, just like it did in 1986, the last time the Celtics won a championship. That was over Houston when you just had the feeling the Celtics were dominating as they opened at home 2-0, won one of three in Houston and then went home for Game 6 to wrap it up.

"We wanted to go back home, but we didn't want to play," said Rivers. "You know what I mean? But now we have to go play, and we earned that right. That's why the regular season is so important. We fought for it all year. We have Game 6 at home, and that's not a bad place to be."

Sam Smith is a contributor to NBCSports.com and has covered pro basketball and the NBA for more than 25 years.

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Lakers Say It Isn’t Over; Last Word to Be in Boston

Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Kobe Bryant, who scored 25 points, including 2 on a final-minute dunk, shooting over Ray Allen and James Posey.

LOS ANGELES — Nine bright gold banners are stretched in three neat rows high above the south end of Staples Center, a reminder of past glory and present goals. On Sunday night, that loose quilt of championship dreams looked like one big security blanket to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Boston Celtics came within inches of claiming the N.B.A. title on the Lakers’ home court. But the Lakers leaned hard on their veterans as the evening grew late and pulled out a 103-98 victory that extended the finals for at least another two days and sent the series back to Boston.

As confetti fell and “I Love L.A.” played on the loudspeakers for the last home game of the season, Kobe Bryant clapped to the fans, and the public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter proclaimed, “This is not over yet!”

“I know I didn’t want to see the Celtics celebrating on my home floor with Champagne and all that,” said Lakers center Pau Gasol, who — as his comments indicated — played with a rare feistiness. “We didn’t play our best game, but we played our hearts out.”

The Celtics now have two chances to take the title at TD Banknorth Garden, starting with Game 6 on Tuesday, when the Lakers will try to delay their gratification once more. The Celtics’ disappointment was offset by the security of a 3-2 lead in the series, and their 12-1 playoff record at home.

“It’s going to be like coming into the Amazon, into the jungle,” the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett said.

In a near-repeat of Game 4, the Celtics erased deficits of 19 points (first half) and 14 points (fourth quarter), but this time found the Lakers to be more resilient — and crafty.

Bryant and Derek Fisher, the only two starters left from the Lakers’ last championship team, delivered the crushing blows in the final minute.

Paul Pierce, who had 38 points for the Celtics, had a chance to tie the game with about a minute to play. He slipped past Bryant, but Bryant reached in and poked the ball away, raced the other direction, took a looping pass from Lamar Odom and threw down a two-handed dunk that electrified the crowd and gave the Lakers a 99-95 lead with 37.4 seconds left.

“Just a great defensive play,” Pierce said.

It was one of six Laker steals in the fourth quarter, one of three by Bryant, who got Pierce twice.

The Celtics never recovered. Ray Allen missed a runner, and Garnett failed to tip it in. Eddie House missed one 3-pointer, then made his next attempt to cut the deficit to 101-98. But by then it was too late. Fisher hit two free throws with nine seconds left, then stole James Posey’s inbounds pass.

“It definitely hurts,” Pierce said. “Tough one to swallow.”

After giving away their lead, the Lakers slowly built it back again and had a 90-79 advantage with under eight minutes to play. It did not last long. Sam Cassell, the Celtics’ ageless reserve point guard, hit a layup. Pierce followed with two free throws, and Posey hit a 3-pointer — his first points of the night — as the Celtics scored 11 straight points to tie the game.

Boston’s prospects dimmed a minute later, when Pierce and Garnett each picked up their fifth fouls in a span of six seconds. Coach Doc Rivers left both in the game, and Pierce hit four free throws down the stretch.

The foul trouble hurt the Celtics, but so did the absence of center Kendrick Perkins, who sat out with a shoulder injury, and a general lack of aggression. For the first time in the series, the Lakers looked like the more physical team. Gasol had 19 points and 13 rebounds. Odom had 20 points and 11 rebounds.

The Celtics started Leon Powe at center and used a lot of P. J. Brown but seemed to miss Perkins’s brawny presence. They ended the night with other concerns. Allen left the arena immediately after the game because of “a health issue with one of his children,” according to written a statement from Rivers.

No team has ever won the finals after trailing, 3-1, but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson thought his team was up for the challenge.

“We’re young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this,” he said before the game. He said “the light was back” in his veterans’ eyes, an indication that they were over their Game 4 collapse, when the Celtics wiped out a 24-point deficit in the biggest comeback in finals history.

Boston did not have a lead in the first 26 minutes Sunday. The Celtics tied it for the first time early in the third, then went ahead, 58-57, on a Pierce free throw. But the Lakers pushed back.

Gasol drove for a pair of layups, Fisher banked in an 18-footer and the Lakers rebuilt the lead, to 79-70 heading into the fourth. A 3-pointer by Odom made it a 12-point game with 11:04 to play.

Jackson was trying to preserve his chance to win a 10th championship, and break his tie with the Celtics legend Red Auerbach. Rivers was seeking his first ring, and doing it on an emotionally volatile Father’s Day. His father, Grady Rivers, died in November. The mere mention of it on Friday made Rivers choke up.

The opening minutes of Game 5 looked a lot like the opening minutes of Game 4 — dominated entirely by the Lakers. Bryant hit four 3-pointers, Fisher added another and the Lakers raced to a 31-15 lead in the first 10 minutes.

This time, the Celtics did not wait to gather themselves. After the Lakers extended the lead to 19 early in the second quarter, Boston scored 15 unanswered points, knocking the deficit down to 43-39. Pierce did most of the work, with 11 points in the run and 16 in the quarter.

It was a messy stretch for the Lakers. Fisher and Chris Mihm shot air balls. Bryant and Odom each threw passes away. Gasol missed two free throws. But Odom scored on three layups and Jordan Farmar hit a 3-pointer to hold off Boston’s charge.

With nearly three days to burn between games, columnists and talk-show hosts exhausted themselves placing blame for the Lakers’ Game 4 collapse. Jackson took several hits, for being outcoached by Rivers. Bryant was faulted for being overly aggressive in the third quarter, after having great success as a passer in the first half. Even the fans came under fire, for going silent during the Celtics’ rally.

Properly chastened, the crowd responded with the proper enthusiasm and volume Sunday. They booed when the Lakers lost the opening tip. They roared, unprovoked, and started a “Let’s go Lakers” chant in the third quarter, after the Celtics took the lead.

With the series down to a game or two, the age-old rivalry grows more taut. The Celtics need one win for their 17th title. The Lakers need two wins for their 10th in Los Angeles, and 14th over all.

“Well, we wanted to go back home,” Rivers said, “but we didn’t want to play.”

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