LOS ANGELES - On his floor and on his game, Kobe Bryant revived the Los Angeles Lakers - and the NBA Finals.
With his team one loss from having to make an impossible climb, Bryant was close to MVP form, scoring 36 points on an assortment of spins, drives and jumpers, and reserve Sasha Vujacic added 20 points as the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics, 87-81, in Game 3 last night at the Staples Center.
A change of time zones, jerseys and attitude did wonders for the Lakers, who staggered home from Boston down by two games to none. They couldn't afford to fall any further behind in the first best-of-seven matchup between the league's marquee teams since 1987.
No team in NBA playoff history has ever overcome an 0-3 deficit.
Bryant made sure the Lakers won't have to.
This time, the superstar got some help.
Vujacic, the self-proclaimed "Machine," made three three-pointers, including a crucial one from the left corner with 1 minute, 53 seconds remaining that gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead. Pau Gasol finally flexed his muscles with two inside baskets in the fourth quarter. Derek Fisher, who took an $8 million pay cut to come back and play for the Lakers, made two free throws with 1:33 remaining as the Lakers held on.
"We just wanted to play," said Bryant, whose only flaw was an 11-of-18 night from the foul line. "I don't think anyone was feeling desperate."
Game 4 is tomorrow night at the Staples Center, where the Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs and unbeaten in 15 games since March 28.
But it took everything they had to keep that streak alive as the Celtics, two wins from their 17th NBA title, made the Lakers play a more physical, Eastern Conference-style game.
Ray Allen scored 25 points - 15 on three-pointers - for the Celtics, but only one-third of Boston's Big Three showed up.
Kevin Garnett scored 13 points on just 6-of-21 shooting, and Paul Pierce, playing a short drive from his childhood home, had only six points, missed 12 shots, and was in foul trouble all night.
Pierce fell into foul trouble early and never got going, missing his first five shots and going 2 for 14 in all while managing to stay on the court just 32 minutes.
Stars in the stands. Jack Nicholson was in his familiar courtside seat wearing his traditional sunglasses last night, cheering on the Lakers.
It was a scene reminiscent of the 1980s, when Nicholson supported the Lakers at the Forum in Inglewood in their three finals matchups with the Celtics.
Actress Dyan Cannon, another fan dating from the Magic Johnson-led "Showtime" Lakers, also was on hand, as was soccer star David Beckham, a Staples Center regular since joining the Los Angeles Galaxy last summer.
Actors Denzel Washington, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Timothy Hutton, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and actress Penny Marshall were others who showed up, along with director Spike Lee and Playboy boss Hugh Hefner with his three girlfriends, the stars of the reality show The Girls Next Door.