LOS ANGELES — This was how the Boston Celtics of yesteryear — Cous and Russell and Bird and Hondo and the Chief — would do it. Digging deep, they fought for every loose ball, scrapping with grit and guts, champions clad in green.
These Celtics are no different.
And they are just one win from another NBA title.
“Yeah,” Kevin Garnett said. “I can taste it.”
In their comeback season, Boston saved its biggest one of all for the Finals.
The Celtics rallied from a 24-point deficit and beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-91 on Thursday night to take a commanding 3-1 lead in this history-rich series and move within one victory of a 17th championship that seemed impossible a year ago.
“I don’t want to get overjoyed,” Paul Pierce said. “I want to go out there to try and win Game 5 on Father’s Day and then I’ll be able to breathe. Right now, I’m waiting to exhale.”
He’s not alone.
A rivalry between the league’s two most storied franchises — with some of the game’s biggest names and biggest moments — now has a rally for the ages.
No team had ever overcome more than a 15-point deficit after the first quarter, and Elias Sports Bureau said it was the largest comeback in the finals since 1971. One thing’s for sure, it will forever be remembered in the annals of Celtics-Lakers lore.
When the final horn sounded, Pierce, an L.A. kid playing in front of family and friends, doubled over in exhaustion and exuberance. The Celtics, the team he stuck with through 10 years, including a 24-win season in 2006-07, had done the impossible.
“It’s definitely a great win, one that you’re going to put up there in the library and break back out one day for your kids to watch,” Pierce said. “But I want nothing more than that ring right now.”
Pierce scored 20 points, Garnett had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Ray Allen had 19 points, two coming on a marvelous reverse layup in the fourth as Boston’s Big Three, thrown together last summer by general manager Danny Ainge to revive a franchise accustomed to hanging banners from the rafters, put the Lakers on the brink of a summer vacation.
It took an epic comeback to do it, and now the Celtics can reclaim their place atop pro basketball with a win in Game 5 on Sunday night in Los Angeles.
No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit in the finals.
Kobe Bryant scored 19 points on 6-of-19 shooting but the league’s MVP couldn’t rescue the Lakers when they needed him most. Lamar Odom had 19 points — 15 in the first half — and Pau Gasol, whose addition in a midseason trade was supposed to give the Lakers their final piece to complement Bryant, had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Trailing by 18 points at halftime and seemingly done when they fell behind by 20 with 6:04 left in the third quarter, the Celtics outscored the Lakers 31-15 in the third quarter to pull within 73-71 going into the fourth.
The remarkable rally was reminiscent of what Los Angeles did in Game 2, when the Lakers trimmed a 24-point deficit to two in the fourth quarter before the Celtics regrouped to open a 2-0 lead. But Boston had another 12 minutes to finish off theirs, and the green-and-white did.
“Some turnaround in that game. The air went out of the building,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was asked what he told his club afterward. “Well, it’s not over. This is not over. The series is not over.”
Boston’s comeback included a 21-3 run over the final five minutes, fueled by two 3-pointers from Eddie House, who was getting more playing time because of Rajon Rondo’s tender left ankle. The Celtics were still down by double digits with 2 minutes left in the third but closed the quarter with a 10-1 run, capped by P.J. Brown’s dunk — a slam that could be felt all the way back to Boston’s North End.
The Celtics finally caught the Lakers at 73-all on Leon Powe’s jumper in the lane with 9:05 remaining, tying the score for the first time since it was 2-2 in the first minute.
At that point, the Lakers looked lost, confused, you name it. And when House hit an 18-foot jumper with 4:07 remaining, the Celtics had their first lead, 84-83. Boston’s bench erupted, Lakers fans gasped and it was just a matter of time before they were heading out of Staples Center wondering what went wrong.
Allen, one of the game’s purest shooters, then drove to the basket and made a reverse layup as dramatic as the Celtics’ comeback.
“It was huge,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “It was really supposed to be a middle pick-and-roll with Kevin and Ray, and Ray waved Kevin off because he liked the matchup that he had already, so he didn’t want to bring another defender in to help. It was a great call by Ray. The layup was just tremendous.”
Bryant, who except for a 36-point performance in Game 3 has been an ordinary superstar in his try for a fourth championship ring, didn’t score in the first half. He tried to rally the Lakers and got them within 89-87 with one of his patented twisting layups. But James Posey drilled a 3-pointer for Boston to make it 92-87 with 1:13 left. Derek Fisher’s long jumper got the Lakers within three.
But Pierce was fouled and made two free throws, forcing Jackson to call a timeout with 47 seconds to go. As the Lakers headed toward their bench, Pierce pumped his fists, flexed his muscles and let out a yell. At the other end of the court, Bryant hung his head.
“They were determined not to let me beat them tonight,” he said. “I saw three, four bodies every time I touched the ball.”
Surrounded by Hollywood stars on their own back lot sound stage, the Lakers were seeking their 10th straight win at home in the postseason and were about to drop the “if necessary” tag from Game 6. Now, they have to hope they can force the series back to Boston.
For the third time in this series, commissioner David Stern met with the media before the game. It was an unusual step for the league’s long-tenured leader, who went on the offensive to defend the integrity of NBA officials under fire in the Tim Donaghy scandal.
Maybe the next investigation should focus on what happened to the Celtics in the first quarter.
L.A’s crowd, notorious for arriving late, leaving early and spending more time text messaging and talking on cell phones than clapping, was much more involved than in Game 3. They roared when Lakers Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presented the game ball to officials and were on their feet when Los Angeles blasted to a 16-6 lead.
By then, Odom had scored eight points, doubling his total from Game 3 and the enigmatic forward finished the first quarter having made all six field goal attempts and scoring 13 points. Moments later, Garnett went out with his second personal, and with the NBA’s best defender on the bench, the Lakers ran wild.
Odom made consecutive jumpers from the top of the key to put Los Angeles ahead 26-7. The Lakers eventually pushed their lead to 45-21 when Sasha Vujacic, whose 20 points sparked his team in Game 3, nailed a 3-pointer and it was the Boston Massacre, West Coast style.
But the Celtics wouldn’t quit.
“Once we got the lead, obviously, we were thrilled to death,” Rivers said. “As far as we were down, nothing was going right for us, and we just hung in there.”