This time the Lakers punched back.
It wasn’t the prettiest counterpunch in the world. Bernard Hopkins isn’t worried. But when the Celtics came back from yet another huge second-half deficit, the Lakers didn’t just cover up and wait for the final bell to ring, as they had in Game 4.
“We just kept playing,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. “This is for the NBA title, so what the score is in the first quarter or second quarter or third quarter is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the final score.”
Two times in the Lakers 103-98 victory in Game 5 Sunday night, they were able to take the Celtics’ best shot and fire back.
And while those punches didn’t exactly land cleanly, they did just enough damage to send the Lakers to a Game 6 in Boston Tuesday night, and keep their season alive another few days.
Three nights ago, that would’ve been hard to imagine. The Lakers had blown the biggest lead in NBA Finals history. They were down 3-1 in the series, with no room for error left. Emotionally, quite understandably, they were a wreck.
Two days of mourning, dissecting the loss, and regrouping could only do so much to heal their fragile confidence.
The prospect of sparing their home court from the spray of Boston’s championship champagne was more than enough motivation.
“I know I didn’t want to see the Celtics celebrating in my home floor with champagne and all that crap,” Lakers center Pau Gasol said. “As painful as it was, I think it definitely helped to build our confidence back up.”
As they had in Game 4, the Lakers came out swinging right away Sunday night, building a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter to put the Celtics on their heels again.
This time, Boston answered much quicker, going on a 15-0 run over a five-minute span in the second quarter. By halftime, the lead was down to 55-52.
As flashbacks go, there was no subtlety to this one. For the second time in as many games, the Lakers had squandered a double-digit early lead.
At halftime, Lakers coach Phil Jackson made a joke of the situation.
“I just said, `Well, thank God we don’t have a lead,”’ Jackson joked. “It’s important we don’t have something like that because we just don’t know what to do with it.”
The levity seemed to help. Instead of freezing up with a case of dj vu, the Lakers answered, building the lead back to 79-70 by the end of the third quarter behind eight, tough points from Pau Gasol.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers stretched the lead out to 88-74, on a jumper by Luke Walton.
Once again, Boston came roaring back. First Sam Cassell threw Sasha Vujacic to the ground, then he faked Jordan Farmar up into the air, and jumped into him -Brent Barry, are you listening? – banked in a wild shot and drew a foul.
All of a sudden, it was 88-79. Then, another nightmare from Game 4 resurfaced as James Posey hit a 3-pointer from nearly the exact same spot he broke the hearts of Lakers fans across the country on Thursday night to make it 90-86.
After free throws by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the next two possessions, it was 90-90.
“We expected them to go on a run,” Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. “We expect a fight from those guys. I mean, they’re tough. They’re a tough-minded team.”
Four minutes remained, entirely too long to cover up and run out the clock.
And that hadn’t exactly worked the last time either. So the Lakers did what any desperate fighter would: They flurried.
Lamar Odom took the ball to the basket and got fouled, then Kobe Bryant poked the ball away from Pierce near midcourt. Odom was in the perfect spot to scoop it up, while Bryant bolted down court.
Odom’s pass was perfect, in stride, on target. Bryant had broken loose from the Celtics hold and finally gotten free for an easy fast break dunk.
“ We kept playing tonight, and we kept playing in Game 3,” Fisher said. “People will say they were ugly games to get, but so far these are the only two games we’ve won. And we’ll take what we can get.”