By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 2:35 AM
LOS ANGELES, June 10 -- The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics had little time to rest and prepare for Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, with a six-hour plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles followed by just one day off. And for more than three quarters, it seemed Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen were the only players to pack their games with them.
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were nowhere to be found for the Lakers, as they caused more groans than cheers from the sellout crowd at Staples Center. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were around for the Celtics, but they spent so much time missing shots that they gradually became a negative influence.
Fortunately for the Lakers, reserve Sasha Vujacic was willing to ride shotgun with Bryant for the most sloppily played game of this series. Vujacic, a fourth-year guard from Slovenia, scored 20 points, including a critical three-pointer from the left corner with 1 minute, 53 seconds left, as the Lakers defeated the Celtics, 87-81, and closed to within 2-1 in this best-of-seven series.
"It was not a beautiful ballgame," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
"That was a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. Hopefully both of us will play better basketball on Thursday" for Game 4.
No matter how it looked, the Lakers will surely take it after absorbing two tough losses in Boston. They have yet to lose a game at Staples Center this postseason, and have won 15 in a row overall at home.
Bryant scored a game-high 36 points, playing all but two minutes of a game that the Lakers had to have if they wanted to have any chance of coming back and winning this series. Determined not to let the Celtics' defense fluster him for the third straight game, the league's most valuable player connected on 12 of his 20 shots from the floor. Those difficult, contested jump shots suddenly fell. He attacked the rim with aggression, which yielded easier baskets or trips to the foul line. Bryant put away the Celtics with a 19-foot jump shot and a beautiful floater in the lane.
"Kobe was terrific," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "Kobe made big shots, bottom line."
The only time Bryant seemed to struggle, was from the foul line, where he missed seven of his 18 free throw attempts.
"I felt like I was in foreign territory because I haven't been there in so long," said Bryant, who attempted just 13 free throws in the first two games. "It's like somebody took me and just dropped me off in the middle of Shanghai with no translator. And no dictionary. It was crazy."
The game was played at the Celtics' preferred grind-it-out pace, but for the first time this series, the Lakers matched them on the defensive end, as they held Boston to just 35 percent shooting and without a field goal for more than six minutes in the fourth quarter.
Allen was the only Celtic who was effective offensively, as he scored 25 points and hit five three-pointers. His fellow all-star teammates, Pierce and Garnett, combined to score just 19 points on 8 for 35 shooting (22.9 percent).
"They didn't get great games out of their two players, but neither did we," Bryant said. Gasol and Odom combined to score just 13 points on 5 of 18 shooting with eight turnovers.
Despite the struggles of Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics led 68-66 with seven minutes remaining when they inexplicably left Bryant open from the top of the key. Bryant nailed a three-pointer to give his team the lead, and then the Lakers hit four straight free throws to go up, 73-68.
Rajon Rondo, who missed the entire third quarter with a sprained left ankle, hit a short jumper in the lane to end the long field goal drought for the Celtics.
The Lakers were able to extend the lead to 77-70, as Gasol twice rebounded Odom misses for layups. Pierce and Garnett scored the next six points for the Celtics, with Garnett bringing his team with 78-76 with a jump hook over Gasol.
On the Lakers' next offensive possession, Vujacic took an ill-advised three-pointer but Celtics reserve Eddie House missed a mid-range jumper at the other end that could have tied the game. Vujacic didn't think twice about shooting again when Odom spotted him in the left corner the next time down. Vujacic drained the open three-pointer and gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead.
"Those are the shots that I live for," Vujacic said. "It's the NBA Finals. I was dreaming about that all my life, to win the NBA Championship, and now I have the opportunity."
Jackson explained how Vujacic was able to take and make a shot so quickly after missing.
"He's a bit of a rockhead. He believes in himself sincerely that he's going to make the next one, and you have to be that way if you're going to have the guts to go out there and do it."
Pierce spent his formative years in Inglewood, in a neighborhood near the old Forum during a time when the Showtime Lakers were winning championships. The hero in the first two games said before the game that he couldn't have scripted a better homecoming. He spent most of the night in foul trouble, and he was held to just six points on 2 of 14 shooting after scoring 50 points in the first two games. And for the first time since he sprained his right knee in the third quarter of Game 1, Pierce actually appeared to be laboring.
"It's frustrating when you don't play well," said Pierce, adding that his knee "felt pretty good. It was just a matter of me staying out of foul trouble and I think, calming down."
Garnett (13 points, 12 rebounds) started 0 for 8, missing a dunk and a string of turnaround jumpers, and never seemed to find an offensive rhythm.
"It was about energy," Allen said. "And I think our energy wasn't right."