LOS ANGELES - Not so fast, my friend.
If the Celtics are to win championship No. 17, it will have to be in TD Banknorth Garden. But be advised that it could very easily have taken place here at Staples Center last night.
The Lakers are alive, thanks to a 103-98 victory over the Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. But they have very little to be proud of. Yes, they pulled out a home-court victory. But once again they squandered leads that should have made life simple. This was no demonstration of Laker grit, courage, determination, or anything else. This was a home-court escape, nothing more.
It was right there for the Celtics, who first came back from a 19-point (43-24) second-quarter deficit to take a 2-point (62-60) third- period lead and then extricated themselves from a 14-point hole in the fourth quarter, when a run of 16-2 in the tidy span of 4:42 brought them back from an 88-74 situation into a tie at 90 with 4:35 to play.
Three missed free throws by Kevin Garnett (a quiet, foul-plagued 13 points) loomed large in this one. The first one came when he had a chance to tie the game at 92 with 3:54 remaining, and the second two came when he had a chance to tie the game at 95 with 2:31 to play. Let's just say that the KG detractors had some ammo coming out of this one. He did his expected job on the boards (14), but this was not one he'll be showing the grandkids.
In direct contrast was the performance of Paul Pierce, who, had the Celtics pulled this one out, would be walking around town as the 2008 NBA Finals MVP after his 38-point, 6-rebound, 8-assist gem. With the exception of that bizarre 2-for-14 in Game 3, he has been bringing a game ranging from A to A-plus to the gym every night.
But he was responsible for the biggest turnover of the night. Talk about an amazing juxtaposition. With the Celtics trailing, 97-95, Pierce came down with a Man's Man of a traffic rebound, outwrestling every Laker this side of Rudy LaRusso for a Derek Fisher miss. So here they were, down 2, with the ball and 50 seconds left.
Before Pierce or anyone else had a chance to tie the game, Kobe Bryant came up with a huge play, sneaking up behind Pierce and knocking the ball away. Lamar Odom fired a return pass, and Kobe dunked the sneakaway, and that was pretty much that. Fuel up the plane and head it to Boston.
The first quarter was eerily similar to the goings-on in Game 4. This time the charged-up Lakers came out of it with a 17-point lead (39-22), as opposed to the 21-point margin (35-14) they had emerged with Thursday night. The Celtics contributed mightily to their own demise, turning the ball over four times in their first four possessions. Three minutes into the game, they were down, 10-2, and then it was 21-7 and right away we were talking deja vu.
The instigator was Bryant, who came out smoking, scoring 15 points in the first 8:35, the total including three 3-pointers. But that was pretty much the extent of his offensive damage. The Lakers aren't alive because Bryant went off. They're alive because the Supporting Cast bailed him out.
Pau Gasol had his strongest and spunkiest game of the series, scoring 19 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Lamar (Trick-or-Treat) Odom was likewise effective with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
But those things are to be expected. One of the constants in this series has been the idea that whichever team gets a significant spark from a sub is likely to win the game. Think Leon Powe in Game 2, Sasha Vujacic in Game 3, and James Posey in Game 4. Now you can add the name of Jordan Farmar to that list.
The second-year guard from UCLA had only 11 points, but in this game there are baskets, and there are baskets. Some you can live with, while others break your heart. Farmar hit one 3-pointer that you can live with.
But Farmar also used his youthful aggressiveness, not to mention his youthful legs, to blow by the elders assigned to guard him. He took it successfully to the hoop four times against the combined guarding of Eddie House and Sam Cassell. Those are going to be hard baskets for Doc Rivers & Co. to live with when they review the tape.
Speaking of taking it to the hoop, Pierce put on yet another clinic. His game has always been an intriguing combination of the 1950s and the 21st century, but in the last two games he has been doing his best Dolph Schayes imitation, and trust me when I tell you that 10-16-38 is a Dolph Schayes box score (Dolphie could easily have been a 3-point maniac with his two-hand set).
With the Celtics entering the second quarter trailing by that 17-point spread, Pierce provided the comeback energy by going to the basket four straight times. He wound up with 16 points in the second quarter as Boston got the deficit down to 3 (55-52) at halftime.
After getting back into the game the first time, the Celtics had to make a second comeback after falling behind by an 88-74 score with 9:17 left. This time they got a liftoff from none other than Cassell, who first hit a corner turnaround and then stuck in an up-fake basket and attached free throw. That kicked off a 16-2 run, which, frankly, looked pretty easy.
Neither team was very distinguished down the stretch. After Garnett tied the game at 90 with an inside-out 13-footer, the Celtics didn't score another basket until House hit a 3-pointer with 14.3 seconds left. LA wasn't exactly filling it up, either, Bryant's sneakaway their only hoop in the final 4:11.
So take a good look at the three LA performances at home. Game 3 was a mutual horror show. Game 4 yielded the biggest Finals comeback ever. In Game 5, they relinquished leads of 19 and 14, but staggered home.
Trouble is, the next two games are in Boston.