LOS ANGELES – He had come harder and harder for Kobe Bryant, a furious and fierce Paul Pierce daring to deliver an NBA championship with every determined drive to the basket. Inside the final minute on Sunday, within a basket, Pierce turned the corner and sent a sinking feeling through the Staples Center. Pierce believed he had cleared the screen Kevin Garnett had set for him, and out of nowhere with 40 seconds left, out of desperation, Bryant reached around Pierce's body and tipped the ball loose and into Lamar Odom's hands.
So, Odom tossed a pass down to Bryant on the run, who had a clear path for a damning dunk, a Game 6 in Boston, a run at redemption in these NBA Finals. The Lakers survived, 103-98, a Game 5 victory Sunday that did little to change the course of this series. Nothing suggested that the Lakers have come closer to solving the Celtics, stopping Pierce, stealing this series that they trail Boston three games to two.
"I know I didn't want to see the Celtics celebrating on my home floor with champagne," Pau Gasol grumbled.
As it stands now, that's all the Lakers did on Sunday night. They spared themselves the indignity of a Celtics celebration. As these Finals make the long flight back East, there stays a sense of inevitability about this series. The Lakers haven't shown the staying power, the toughness, to take a Game 6 and 7 on the road.
Once again, Pierce had been the best player in these Finals, but Bryant, the best player in the world, gets two chances, two nights, to make a comeback out of his soul mate Tiger Woods' U.S. Open playbook. The trouble is, Rocco Mediate doesn't play defense the way these Celtics do.
"A lot of people say, 'Kobe, you have to go out for 40 or 50 (points),' but that's not how we play," he insisted. "That's not what's going to win us championships."
The way these Celtics swarm him, it would be just feeding into those defensive schemes.
As much as ever now, Bryant has monumental respect for Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, whom he remembers as a young 76ers assistant coach in his own days as a suburban Philadelphia high school star. Bryant sees so much of the way that the Houston Rockets, under Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy, played him in past years. The Celtics have slowed his penetration and contested his shots.
The mandate is unchanged: Anyone but Bryant beats us.
"They're going to throw the whole kitchen sink at me," he said. "Could I force myself to 40? Yeah. But is that better for our ball club? No."
Bryant has resisted all his instincts to start answering back on Pierce with shot after shot. Pierce had 38 points and eight assists Sunday. Whatever he wanted to do, he did. Again, Pierce reached the rim for 19 free-throw attempts. Over and over, the Celtics ran a high screen with Pierce and Garnett, and he sped so easily to the basket. The Lakers can't cover him. Not Bryant, not anyone.
Pierce hasn't been just the best offensive player, but a dedicated defender, too. Even so, Bryant has resisted the urge to overtake the Celtics on his own. Yes, he started Game 5 with a flurry of scoring – 15 of his 25 points in the first quarter – but he never truly imposed himself until that final minute, until that steal to save the game. The rest of the way, Bryant missed 13 of 16 shots. He turned it over six times. His passes were sometimes hurried, sometimes sloppy. Nothing has come easy for him.
"He's the whole focus for us," Pierce said. "He's a guy who can beat you all by himself, so the whole game plan is surrounding and stopping him, making other guys beat us. It's just unfortunate we let the other guys beat us today."
What he meant was: We let Gasol and Lamar Odom. Together, they had 39 points, 24 rebounds and six blocks. Together, they had a presence. Boston missed its rugged center, Kendrick Perkins. There's no telling whether his strained shoulder will allow him to play Game 6. Even so, the Celtics can win without him. They have a toughness, a tenacity, a guile that the Lakers are still searching to tap within themselves.
"They're a tough-minded team," Odom marveled.
As it turns out, tougher than the Lakers knew. Until Gasol and Odom play this way outside the Staples Center, the Lakers don't have a chance. They'll be walking into such a frenzied Boston Garden – hungry for the Celtics' first title in 22 years – Garnett imagines an environment that's like, "coming into the Amazon, the jungle." Gasol and Odom seemed to be satisfied with saving face in L.A., just getting the Finals back to Boston.
Everyone keeps waiting for Bryant to do it himself, to scrap the season's model of Lakers balance, and go it alone in Boston. He has probed the Celtics' defense in every way, and keeps coming back to the same conclusion: The Celtics will never let him beat them. In a lot of ways, the Celtics have stripped Bryant of that arrogance that forever believes he can dominate, that he can always find an avenue to do it his way.
"You're not going to shoot the ball too well against this team because they're going to throw everybody at you," Bryant said.
Beyond Bryant, it's hard to see his running mates with the resolve to rise around him in Boston. Truth be told, none of these Lakers were saying that they didn't want to watch the Celtics celebrate a championship, just that they didn't want the indignity of it happening here. The Lakers survived Sunday, breathed a big sigh and departed East for the toughest test of their basketball lives: Beating the odds, beating Boston.
Yes, everyone here wishes that Kobe was bringing Tiger Woods' playbook to Boston, but he's bringing Phil Jackson's. If only Rocco Mediate was waiting for him in the Boston Garden.