LOS ANGELES - This wasn't Mars or Pluto, where Kobe Bryant said the Los Angeles Lakers could beat the Boston Celtics. This wasn't Boston, where the Lakers couldn't win Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. This was the Staples Center. This was home, where the Lakers had to scramble to transform this into a series.

This was the Lakers' chance to turn it around before it careened drastically out of control. This was the Celtics' opportunity to shock the world and put themselves in an overwhelmingly commanding position.

Advantage, Lakers.

But not by much.

They needed a 36-point performance by Bryant and a terrific, playoff career-high 20-point, off-the-bench effort by Sasha Vujacic to make it happen, 87-81, setting the stage for a meaningful Game 4 tomorrow night on the same floor.

This wasn't exactly a classic, but the Lakers staved off the Celtics despite missing 13 free throws, three more than they attempted in Game 2. Bryant was as guilty as anyone, shooting 11-for-18.

"It felt like I was in foreign territory [at the line] because I hadn't been there in so long," Bryant said. "It felt like somebody dropped me off in Shanghai with no translator, no dictionary."

But Lakers coach Phil Jackson said the victory revolved around "the leadership" of Bryant.

"He was aggressive right from the start," Jackson said.

As good as Bryant and Vujacic were, the Celtics' Paul Pierce - playing in his hometown - inexplicably shot 2-for-14 from the floor and scored only six points. Kevin Garnett had 13 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, but shot just 6-for-21. Pierce and Garnett were a combined 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter.

"I just thought they were more aggressive," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought they ran more, [and] Kobe was really live off [Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo]. I think we moved the ball great. I think Paul and Kevin for the most part had some decent shots, but give [the Lakers] credit."

The Lakers had to win this one if they were to have any chance to win the championship. No team in league history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the Finals.

To the Lakers - and Bryant's - credit, they forced the turn. Bryant came out driving, spinning, twisting to the rim rather than settling for perimeter shots. His trademark killer instinct was apparent. There was a familiar glint in his eye, rather than the painful frustration of the first two games.

He had said he wasn't worried about being down 2-0, and played just that way. He also played defense, drawing Pierce for a chunk of the evening.

"Putting Kobe on Pierce was the difference in tonight's game," Jackson said. "It was more difficult for [Pierce] to work to get free. He still had, I thought, some instrumental plays down the stretch, but it made a difference for us tonight."

As for Garnett, Jackson said, "I just think that Kevin kind of ran out of gas. It looked like he was gassed sometime in the fourth quarter."

If it wasn't beautiful, Jackson said it was a function of "a transition game East Coast to West Coast."

"There probably should have been a day off [after traveling Monday]," Jackson said. "Hopefully, both of us will play better basketball Thursday night."

It will be hard for Vujacic to play much better than he did last night, packing eight of his points into the fourth period, finishing 7-for-10 from the floor.

He's not shy.

"He's a little bit of a rockhead," Jackson said, smiling. "That's what we call him. He believes in himself very sincerely, that he's going to make the next one. And you have to be that way if you're going to have the guts to go out there and do it. Sasha [in his mind] is always going to make the next shot. That [last] one might have been off, but the next one is going in."

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

The Lakers climbed to 9-0 at home in the postseason, while the Celtics dropped to 2-8 on the road. This was the 12th time since 1985 in the 2-3-2 format that the home team had won the first two games in the Finals. In 10 of the previous 11 situations, that team went on to win the championship; the exception came in 2006 when the Dallas Mavericks won the first two, then dropped the next four to the Miami Heat.

There was more history to consider, including the obligatory Philadelphia reference. Only three teams have ever come back from 0-2 to win a championship, including the Portland Trail Blazers, who beat the 76ers in six games. The others: The 1968-69 Celtics, who rallied to beat the Lakers in seven games, and the '06 Heat.

After Game 2, Bryant wryly said the Lakers had to "Get our, beep, A in gear. Play, beep, harder. A bunch of other beeps. It's beep, beep, beep, beep, beep - 'Eddie Murphy Raw' times 10."

They didn't quite do that. But they did get a win. *