LOS ANGELES (AP)—Pack up the championship trophy and book a flight back to Boston, the NBA finals aren’t over yet.
The Los Angeles Lakers are headed East to try a historic comeback of their own.
Kobe Bryant scored 25 points, including a decisive dunk in the final minute — and Lamar Odom added 20 as the Lakers, playing with pride on their star-studded stage, prevented the Celtics from winning a 17th title with a 103-98 win in Game 5 on Sunday night to close to 3-2 in this restored rivalry.
“We didn’t want to see any champagne popping,” Odom said. “It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t expect it to be.”
No team has overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals to win a title. The first 28 failed, and now the Lakers, who blew a 24-point lead and lost Game 4 and nearly squandered a 19-point lead in Game 5, have a chance to do something extraordinary.
They’ll have to win on the Celtics’ parquet floor Tuesday night to force a winner-take-all Game 7, where anything is possible.
Especially with Bryant, the game’s best player, on hand.
“We’ve won on the road before,” Bryant said. “We’ve played in tough environments before.”
But the league’s MVP and uberforce, who spent much of last summer grumbling to Lakers management for help to get him a fourth championship ring, didn’t have to fly a solo mission to extend L.A.’s season for at least another game.
“We were aggressive. We played hard,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Not smart all the time, but we played hard.”
Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 38 points, Kevin Garnett added 13 points and 14 rebounds, and Ray Allen had 16 points. But Boston’s Big Three couldn’t close their first chance at winning it all, and now will get two cracks at home to finish the job.
“Guys are down and upset because they thought they could have, they thought they should have,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We played all year to have home court.”
After scoring 15 points in the first quarter, Bryant went cold from the floor and finished just 8-of-21. But he made a big steal, poking the ball away from Paul Pierce and streaking down to deliver a two-handed dunk with 37.4 seconds left.
“I just was kind of reading the play and I was able to get my hands on the ball and get out and get a dunk,” Bryant said.
The Celtics called a timeout, Jack Nicholson jumped to his feet and the scoreboard in Staples Center flashed: Not In Our House!
When the final horn sounded, purple and gold streamers fell from the ceiling and the public address announcer said, “Game 6 will be Tuesday night in Boston. This is not over yet.”
On Saturday, Bryant had said “this is far from over,” and he could be right.
Accused of being selfish and too tough on his not-as-talented teammates, Bryant can bow to the other Lakers for sending the series back across country.
Gasol, the 7-foot Spanish center criticized for being pillowy soft, didn’t back down underneath and was able to get Garnett into foul trouble.
But just as they did in Game 4, when they staged the biggest comeback in finals history, the Celtics pushed the Lakers to the brink of summer with another rally. This one fell a little short, but the outcome was still in doubt when Pierce, who grew up hating Boston like every other kid from L.A., made two free throws with 1:14 remaining to get the Celtics to 97-95.
Fisher then missed a jumper and the Celtics appeared to be in business when Pierce fought off two Lakers for a rebound. But as he dribbled toward the basket, Bryant reached around and knocked the ball away to Odom, who then fed Bryant for his slam.
Still, the Celtics wouldn’t go away.
After Bryant missed one of two free throws with 16 seconds left, Eddie House nailed a 3-pointer to make it 101-98 with 14 seconds left. House then nearly stole the ensuing inbounds pass, but Bryant, sprawled out on the floor, got the ball to Fisher, who drew a desperation foul.
Fisher then made two free throws and stole Boston’s last pass as Lakers fans, stunned to silence a few nights ago, left the building dreaming of seeing another improbable comeback.
This is the 11th meeting—and first since 1987—between the league’s two most stories franchises, and it could be headed for a crescendo befitting the matchups between Bird and Magic, McHale and Abdul-Jabbar, and Russell and West.
Before the game, Lakers coach Jackson said the only way for his team to approach a close-out game was to keep playing.
“A lot of things can happen,” he said. “We’re young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this.”
With Bryant, they have the smarts and skills to get it done.
He made four 3-pointers in the first eight minutes and his free throw gave the Lakers a 25-15 lead. The Celtics were forced to extend their defense, and Bryant made them pay when he faked a long-range shot and fired a pass underneath to Vladimir Radmanovic to make it 29-15.
Odom, a model of inconsistency in the series, drove the lane for a hoop to put the Lakers ahead by 16, and Gasol’s bucket in the final second made the overhead scoreboard read: Lakers 39, Celtics 22.
Most teams might panic. Not the Celtics. They were in a bigger hole—21 points—after the first quarter in Game 4 when they staged their epic rally.
And, sure enough, back Boston came.
When Sasha Vujacic scored, the Lakers’ lead bulged to 19 and the oh-so-trendy L.A. faithful were carrying on like a rowdy East coast crowd. That’s when the Celtics began chipping away as Pierce scored six points and Allen, Tony not Ray, scored two quick baskets.
The Celtics’ rally seemed short-lived when Garnett picked up his third personal, but with the Lakers unable to get anything to drop, Pierce made a layup and 3 to make it 43-39 before Odom finally ended Los Angeles nearly six-minute scoring drought.
The Lakers briefly regrouped but P.J. Brown scored on a putback and Pierce hit another 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left as the Celtics closed to 55-52 at half and bounded toward their locker just 24 minutes from a title.
The Celtics played their 25th game of these playoffs, equaling the most by any team in one postseason. New York (1994) and Detroit (2005) also played 25, each ending with Game 7 losses in the finals. … NFL star Terrell Owens and rap mogul P. Diddy were among the new celebrity faces, joining Hollywood A-listers Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Dustin Hoffman and soccer star David Beckham. … Pierce denied a report that he he’ll have surgery on his sprained knee, although he may need one once he decides to have an MRI in assess the damage.