LOS ANGELES - The champagne was taken off ice. The championship hats and T-shirts were kept in boxes and sent back to Boston. And after being in position to win a championship for the first time in 22 years late last night, the Larry O'Brien Trophy slipped out of the Celtics' hands and left them hoping to celebrate back in Boston now.
Despite a 38-point effort from Paul Pierce, the Celtics lost, 103-98, to the Lakers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center. Boston still holds a 3-2 lead in the series in its bid to win its first title since 1986. Game 6 is tomorrow night at TD Banknorth Garden and the finale is there Thursday, if necessary.
"Well, we wanted to go back home, but we didn't want to play," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "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."
The Lakers finished with a 10-1 home playoff record this season, the only blemish the Celtics' incredible comeback win in Game 4. The Celtics, however, are 12-1 at home in the postseason and are 3-0 overall against the Lakers at home. No NBA team ever has overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a championship. Boston is going for its 17th championship.
"It's a tough loss tonight, a tough one to swallow," Pierce said. He made 10 of 22 shots and 16 of 19 free throws, dished out 8 assists, and grabbed 6 rebounds in 47 minutes 58 seconds. The NBA passed out MVP ballots to select media last night who undoubtedly would have named Pierce the winner had Boston won the game.
"[Pierce] was terrific," Rivers said. "I thought he was really aggressive to the basket, getting to the foul line 19 times tells you that - I thought he really went for it, if you want to put it that way."
"I was just trying to make plays. That's all I was trying to do, take advantage of my opportunities," said Pierce, who has been plagued by a knee sprain suffered in Game 1.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had 25 points while forwards Lamar Odom (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (19 points, 13 rebounds) added important contributions.
Celtics center Kendrick Perkins missed the game with a left shoulder strain that will require an MRI in Boston. Point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been hampered by a bone bruise in his left ankle, played only 14 minutes, and only 11 seconds in the fourth quarter. Ray Allen had only 16 points and fouled out with 16 seconds left.
Rivers said the limited playing time was because the second-year player has been struggling.
Just like the game before, the Celtics opened poorly and were trailing, 39-22, at the end of the first quarter. But after outscoring the Lakers, 30-16, in the second, Boston went into halftime down only 55-52.
"We have to get off to better starts," Pierce said. "The Lakers have dominated us in the first quarter."
With 9:59 left in the third, Pierce gave Boston its first lead of the game, 58-57, after a free throw. A 3-pointer by Vladimir Radmanovic gave the Lakers a 71-64 lead with 5:01 left in the third. Los Angeles finished the quarter with an 8-6 run to claim a 79-70 advantage.
The Lakers jumped to a 12-point lead, 84-72, after a 3-pointer by Odom with 11:05 left in the fourth, and a Luke Walton jumper with 9:18 remaining made it 88-74.
But the Celtics came back, a 16-2 run capped by a Kevin Garnett jumper tying the game at 90 with 4:35 remaining.
Bryant nailed two free throws with 2:14 left to give Los Angeles a 97-93 lead but Pierce nailed two of his own with 1:14 remaining to get Boston within 97-95. But as Pierce dribbled down the floor with 40.9 seconds to play, Bryant knocked the ball out from behind. After Odom retrieved it, he threw a pass to a wide-open Bryant for a fast-break dunk with 37.4 seconds left to give LA a two-possession lead, 99-95.
"It was just a great defensive play," Pierce said.
Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "We tried to do something different, and this time Kobe was available and capable of getting that steal."
Derek Fisher made one of two free throws with 24.8 seconds left to give Los Angeles a 100-95 advantage. And Bryant made one of two with 16.7 seconds left to give the Lakers a 101-95 advantage.
"I didn't think we trusted our offense as much as we should have," Pierce said. "I thought we tried to force plays."
Said Jackson, "[The Lakers] played harder than the Celtics consistently for the game, and I think that was a big key in the ballgame."
Eddie House gave Boston some hope by nailing a 3-pointer with 14.3 seconds left to trim it to 101-98. But Fisher sealed the win and a Lakers trip back to Boston by nailing two free throws with nine seconds left.
"It hurts. It's a tough one to swallow. We'll just try to get the next [one]," Pierce said.
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com