Lakers back on track

An inspired Kobe Bryant drove 36 points past the Boston Celtics to help the Los Angeles Lakers clinch an 87-81 win in Game 3 of the NBA finals, their first at home. The Lakers now trail 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.


An aggressive 36-point performance from National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Kobe Bryant powered the Los Angeles Lakers past Boston 87-81 here Tuesday in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers pulled within two games to one in the best-of-seven series by winning their ninth home playoff game in a row - one shy of the NBA one-season record - and can level the best-of-seven series by winning game four Thursday.

"Undoubtedly it was the leadership of Kobe Bryant. He was aggressive right from the start," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We stayed aggressive and Kobe was very instrumental in that."

Bryant struggled in two losses at Boston but drove confidently to the basket on his home court, hitting 12-of-20 from the field and 11-of-18 free throws, and shut down Boston scoring leader Paul Pierce with a solid defensive effort.

"I just went. I took it too them. I had the confidence that once I get in there I can make the right play," Bryant said. "I wanted to put their defense in jeopardy a little bit more than we did in Boston.

Slovenia's Sasha Vujacic added 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting for the Lakers, connecting on 3-of-5 from 3-point range including a crucial shot from the left corner after the Celtics missed a chance to equalize late in the game.

"We played with heart," Vujacic said. "We didn't play a great game. We didn't play not even good. We were just fighting and that was the key."

No team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, a hole the Lakers avoided by winning, and only three have come back from losing the first two games to win the finals, a feat the Lakers hope to match.

"They are going to take something away," Bryant said. "The important thing for us is to figure out how to win despite that. That's the key if you want to win a championship."

Ray Allen led Boston with 25 points while Kevin Garnett added 13 points and 12 rebounds, but the Celtics shot a woeful 34.9 percent. Pierce hitting only 2-of-14 in his hometown return and Garnett only 6-of-21.

"Myself and Paul didn't have the best night. Shooting-wise, I had a pretty awful game," Garnett said. "We have some more games to play. I'm sure I'll get better."

Even with their stars stagnant, the Celtics still almost won.

"We had a chance to steal a game here when our guys were off," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Our defense was pretty good. Our offense was not."

A Garnett bank shot pulled the Celtics within 78-76 with 2:39 to play but Boston reserve Eddie House missed an equalizer attempt. Vujacic followed with a 3-pointer from the left corner and Derek Fisher added two Lakers free throws.

"That was a big swing," Allen said. "Bad as we played, we had opportunities. That's a positive we can look at. We can see so much room for improvement."

Bryant answered two Boston baskets with jumpers of his own, keeping the Lakers on top 87-81 with 38 seconds to play, and an offensive foul on Garnett doomed the last meaningful possession for the Celtics.

"I think Kevin kind of ran our of gas. It looked like he was gassed in the fourth quarter," Jackson said. "Our defense stepped up. Putting Kobe on Pierce was the difference. It was more difficult for him to work to get free."

Pierce missed 10 of his first 11 shots in the game and the Celtics missed nine of their first 11 shots in the fourth quarter.

"It's frustrating," Pierce said. "By no means does it break my confidence. Some shots I took were good for me. They just didn't fall. Then I took myself out of rhythm by getting in foul trouble. I expect to be better in game four."

Bryant plans to match Pierce's moves with tough defense.

"I just try to stay with him. He's a tough guard. He's a bad boy," Bryant said. "He a tough cover, as tough as you are going to have in the league. I just tried to accept the challenge and make it as tough as I can for him."

The Lakers found their way to the free throw line more often after Jackson complained about calls in game two. Bryant missed seven free throws, saying his form was off because he reached the line so seldom in the series.

"It felt like I wass in a foreign territory because I haven't been there in so long," Bryant said. "It was like somebody took me and dropped me in the middle of Shanghai with no translator and no dictionary. It was crazy.

"At least I got there. so that's a positive."

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