The next few nights might make him long to be back home.
The NBA’s best rivalry is returning to its East Coast headquarters, site of perhaps the most miserable moment of Bryant’s career last time he and the Los Angeles Lakers were here for the finals.
And the Boston Celtics and their green-clad fans can’t wait to welcome him back.
Those familiar “Beat L.A! Beat L.A!” chants that have echoed through the Garden during so many springtimes will be booming again, and the Celtics can lock up an 18th NBA title if they can do just that three times.
Game 2 is Tuesday night, followed by games Thursday and Sunday in Boston.
The Celtics evened the series at a game apiece with their 103-94 victory in Game 2, with guards Rajon Rondo(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) taking turns punishing the Lakers, and Bryant often powerless to stop them because of foul trouble.
A fuming Bryant had little to say afterward, offering terse responses as he looked back on that game and ahead to the next one.
“It’s the most important game. Game 1 was the most important, Game 2 was the most important, now it’s Game 3,” Bryant said. “It’s just the next game, simple as that.”
The finals are deadlocked after two games for the first time since 2004, when the Detroit Pistons split a pair in Los Angeles before coming home and winning three straight to take the series. That was Bryant’s first loss in the championship round.
His other one came two years ago, on a night the Lakers will never forget.
The Celtics pummeled them 131-92 in a Game 6 rout that was decided after mere minutes. While Garnett, Allen and Pierce celebrated their long-awaited first NBA title, the humiliated Lakers sat trapped in their team bus as Boston fans taunted them from the street.
“Obviously there’s feelings involved and there’s memories that are in there, which should help us, should help us to push through and to battle even harder,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol(notes) said of that night.
Both teams were off Monday following the cross country flight from Los Angeles. The 2-3-2 format in the NBA finals was instituted in the mid-1980s, when Lakers-Celtics matchups were as common in June as graduation parties, to limit the amount of coast to coast trips. But a return to California won’t be needed if either team can win three straight.
“We took home court, so we’ve got a chance to play three games (at home),” Celtics forward Paul Pierce(notes) said Sunday. “But I told you all yesterday that doesn’t guarantee we’re going to win the games because we’re at home. We’ve got to go out there and play the game. They’re going to be coming into our house and we can’t assume anything. We can’t take it for granted.”
The Celtics turned things around following their 102-89 loss in their opener by toughening up their defense, limiting the Lakers to 41 percent shooting. Rondo tracked down the long rebounds of many missed shots to ignite Boston’s fast break, and Allen capitalized on the open looks that created by making an NBA finals-record eight 3-pointers while scoring 32 points.
The Lakers were frustrated by the foul trouble for Bryant and top reserve Lamar Odom(notes), who has been ineffective in both games. Bryant was more annoyed with his team’s defense against Boston’s guards, wasting strong efforts from Gasol and center Andrew Bynum(notes).
“It has nothing to do with scoring. Nothing. It’s all defensively,” Bryant said. “We gave them too many easy baskets and blew too many defensive assignments. That’s it.”
Now they’ll have to play better on the road than they have in some previous series, having lost twice at both Oklahoma City and Phoenix earlier in the postseason.
Just like in those series, they’re searching for ways to slow down a dynamic point guard. Rondo had 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in his fifth career triple-double, repeatedly beating the Lakers to loose balls and then beating them down the court.
“In a sequence like this, there’s no doubt it’s a blow to us to lose the home court, but we anticipated this might happen, and we’re just going to have to go pick it up,” coach Phil Jackson said.
Los Angeles dropped all three road games during the 2008 finals, but the Celtics aren’t as dominant on the parquet now as they were back then. The Lakers haven’t lost in Boston since that night that ended their season two years ago, posting a pair of regular-season victories.
“Game 3 is the biggest game of the series so far. These two games are behind us,” Rondo said. “You know, they’re not in a bad situation at all. They’re a good road team, and we’re a good home team. It’s going to be a good game.”