LOS ANGELES -- Magic Johnson looked very nervous. Across the court, Jack Nicholson fidgeted with his sunglasses, Sylvester Stallone squirmed in his seat and nearly everyone else styling in shades of purple and gold was on edge.
The Los Angeles Lakers, kings of the Western Conference, were in real trouble, end-of-the-season kind of trouble.
Kobe Bryant pulled them out of it.
On his floor and on his game, Bryant revived the Lakers -- and the NBA Finals.
Bryant scored 36 points with an MVP-worthy performance, Sasha Vujacic added 20 points and the Lakers, teetering on the brink of falling into an impossible hole in the NBA Finals, beat the Boston Celtics 87-81 in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
|Date||Result/Time; Home team in bold; *-if necessary|
|June 5||Celtics 98, Lakers 88|
|June 8||Celtics 108, Lakers 102|
|Tuesday||Lakers 87, Celtics 81|
|Thursday||at Lakers, 9 p.m. ET|
|Sunday||at Lakers, 9 p.m. ET|
|June 17||at Celtics, 9 p.m. ET-*|
|June 19||at Celtics, 9 p.m. ET-*|
L.A.'s brightest sports star, Bryant was California cool.
"What I tried to do with my teammates is just stay calm," he said. "It wasn't the end of the world. They did a great job of defending home court. We knew we had to come here and do the same. They feed off of my confidence and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win."
A change of time zones, jerseys and attitude did wonders for the Lakers, who staggered home from Boston in an 2-0 hole and couldn't afford to fall any further behind in the first best-of-7 matchup between the league's marquee teams since 1987.
No team in NBA playoff history has ever overcome an 0-3 deficit.
Bryant made sure the Lakers won't have to.
And this time, the superstar got some help.
Vujacic, the self-proclaimed "Machine," made three 3-pointers, including a crucial one from the left corner with 1:53 left that gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead. Pau Gasol finally flexed his muscles with two inside baskets in the fourth quarter and Derek Fisher, who took an $8 million pay cut to come back and play for the Lakers, made two free throws with 1:33 remaining as the Lakers held on.
"We just wanted to play," said Bryant, whose only flaw was an 11-for-18 night from the foul line. "I don't think anyone was feeling desperate."
Game 4 will be Thursday night at the Staples Center, where the Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs and unbeaten in 15 games since March 28.
But it took everything they had to keep that streak alive as the Celtics, two victories from their 17th NBA title but only 2-8 on the road in this postseason, made the Lakers play a more physical, Eastern Conference-style game and nearly walked away with a win.
Ray Allen scored 25 points -- 15 on 3-pointers -- for the Celtics, but only one-third of Boston's Big Three showed up.
"As bad as we played, we still had opportunities," Allen said. "That's the positive. We can look at it, but I don't think on either side of the floor we were good. We had so much more room for improvement."
The Celtics enjoyed a huge disparity from the line in Game 2, shooting 38 free throws to 10 for the Lakers.
But the whistles were more well-balanced as Los Angeles took 34 free throws to Boston's 22.
After Garnett's dunk brought the Celtics within 83-78 with 1:28 to go, Bryant made sure that it was he who took L.A.'s next shot. He drove on Allen to get some space, pulled up and drilled the kind of jumper he has practiced tens of thousands of times.
Eddie House, who gave Boston big minutes when Rajon Rondo went out with an injury, countered with a 3-pointer, and suddenly the Lakers' glitzy crowd, which included Nicholson in his familiar courtside seat, grew uneasy.
But Bryant calmed their twitching nerves quickly.
On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant, whose shot wouldn't drop in Boston, backed down in the lane and dropped in a short jumper to make it 87-81.
House missed for Boston, both teams committed silly offensive fouls in the closing seconds, and when the final horn sounded, the Lakers could finally relax.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson knew whom to credit for the victory.
"I think undoubtedly it's the leadership of Kobe Bryant," he said. "He was aggressive right from the start, put the defense on its heels."
Los Angeles is trying to become the fourth team to come back from an 0-2 deficit, and with two more games at home, they have a chance to turn this renewed rivalry around.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers figured Bryant would take over the series at some point, but he didn't expect Vujacic, who scored a combined 16 points in Games 1 and 2, to be such a factor.
"Kobe was fantastic but I thought Vujacic was the key to the game," he said. "I said before we are going to have to win a game when Kobe Bryant plays well. We know that. But when that happens, we have to shut off the other avenues."
This game won't be remembered as one of the better ones in the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but it did have a few moments of the physical nastiness that defined their matchups during the 1980s.
"It was not a beautiful ballgame," Jackson said. "That's a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. But we'll have a day to catch up tomorrow and hopefully both of us will play better basketball on Thursday night."
With the Lakers down two and running out of time in the fourth, Bryant took a pass from Luke Walton at the top of the key. Knowing he was about to try a shot that could have lasting importance, Bryant gathered himself, measured the rim and let fly with a 3-pointer that gave Los Angeles a 69-68 lead with 6:55 left.
Fisher made two free throws and Bryant, who had missed seven from the line, knocked down two more foul shots as the Lakers went up 73-68.
Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., where he learned to play in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum, the Lakers' former home where Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and "Showtime" had an extended run of championship seasons.
But Pierce's Finals homecoming was homely.
The Celtics' star forward, who came in averaging 25 points in the series, went 2-for-14 and missed all four 3-pointers.
Despite his struggles, the Celtics were down only six early in the third quarter when Rondo went down with a sprained left ankle. As he laid on the floor, his teammates rushed over to check on Rondo, who limped off the court without aid -- or a wheelchair -- like Pierce famously needed after hurting his knee in the opener.
House, who hadn't played a minute in the series, replaced Rondo and drilled a 3-pointer and Garnett scored underneath before finally making a jumper as Boston took a 51-49 lead. Moments later, Allen stuck a 3-pointer that sent Boston's bench bounding onto the floor when the Lakers had to call a timeout.
The Lakers didn't have to endure the deafening chants of "Beat L.A." Instead, they warmed up to Randy Newman's I Love L.A. and Los Angeles fans screamed "Boston (Stinks)" every chance they could.
Unlike Game 2, when so much of the pregame attention was on Pierce's sprained knee, the chatter before tipoff included uneasy discussions about past officiating.
The league was again having to deal with allegations made by former referee Tim Donaghy, who claims in court documents that NBA referees rigged the 2002 playoff series between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
Commissioner David Stern reiterated the league's stance that Donaghy acted alone and feels his lawyers were using Game 3's platform to help their client.
After Game 2, Jackson, Bryant and a few other Lakers had made pointed and sarcastic comments about the lopsided whistles. But if they were worried about there being any favoritism toward Boston, they were mistaken as the Lakers attempted 14 free throws -- four more than in all of Game 2 -- in the first quarter.
- Informed that Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who sat courtside and within a few feet of the Lakers bench in Game 2, blogged about Bryant criticizing his teammates, Jackson said he wished fans were further back. "I've been against that for as long as I've been coaching," he said. "Those people don't belong there, somebody is going to get hurt. But that becomes part of what the NBA is about, being close to the action and close to the scene. We have to suffer the consequences because of it."
- American Idol winner David Cook sang The Star-Spangled Banner.