By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; D01
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers stared down elimination with a serious glare from Phil Jackson, who said his team was where it was supposed to be after losing two games in Boston. Instead of panic, there was a self-assured laugh from Kobe Bryant, who said the deficit wasn't a big deal, chuckling to himself when he mockingly said he wasn't confident that his team could win the next two games, at home at Staples Center, to win an NBA championship.
The Lakers showed why there was little concern that they could extend their season and force a decisive seventh game against the Boston Celtics. Revitalized after returning to a more favorable coast, the Lakers provided ample support for Bryant while playing with a scrappy determination to rebound and defend to overwhelm the Celtics, 89-67, on Tuesday night. Bryant scored a game-high 26 points, while Pau Gasol nearly had a triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists, as the Lakers forced just the fourth Game 7 of the NBA Finals since the league moved to a 2-3-2 format in 1985. Now, the most NBA's most heated rivalry, between its most two storied franchises, is down to one game.
"A game we got to win. Simple as that," Bryant said. "I'm not going crazy over it. Got to take care of business."
The defending champion Lakers handled their first task in Game 6, denying the Celtics of a chance to win their 18th championship by showing that they were equally determined to claim a 16th of their own. Thursday's Game 7 will be the first in the Finals since 2005, when the San Antonio Spurs beat the Detroit Pistons -- and the first at this stage for Jackson, Bryant or any of the Celtics.
The Lakers are hoping to become just the third team in the past 22 years to win the final two games at home to claim the title. The Celtics, who had the second-lowest scoring output in NBA Finals history, are hoping to become the first road team to win the title since 1978 Washington Bullets.
"When it comes to Game 7, it's like this is what we were born to do," Ray Allen said after scoring a team-high 19 points for the Celtics. "It's like if we were born, our mothers said we would be in Game 7 of the NBA Finals some day and nobody would blink an eye because we would say that's where we're supposed to be. So, we're looking forward to it."
While scoring 71 points the two previous games, Bryant established that he could tally points against the Celtics, but the one-man show failed to produce wins with his teammates seemingly occupying the floor for the sole reason of keeping the teams even. Before the game, Jackson said the Lakers had to ride Bryant's hot hand but would have to rely on more team play than "individual action."
Bryant again asserted himself offensively against the Celtics. But his outing was much efficient and didn't come at the expense of ball movement, as he stepped back and let his teammates come along for the ride. He got a standing ovation when he left the game with 3 minutes, 21 seconds remaining, with fans chanting, "MVP! MVP!"
Gasol returned from a disappearing act in Boston, where he reverted to his form from the 2008 Finals, when he had his toughness questioned after each shove from Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. Gasol again displayed the dominance he revealed in the first two games in Los Angeles, where he was an offensive focal point. Bryant helped get Gasol going early when he stole the ball from Paul Pierce and found Gasol cutting to the basket for a left-handed layup.
"I just did my part, I guess," Gasol said. "I'm just really happy about the team, the way we played as a team, defensively, the activity, the intensity, just everything was very positive and very together."
The mercurial Artest finally awoke from a four-game slumber, as he was aggressive on the offensive end and applied pressure on Pierce defensively. Artest made three three-pointers and scored 15 points -- matching his total from Game 1.
Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo all scored in double figures for the Celtics, who became unhinged after losing Perkins to a sprained right knee with 5:30 left in the first period. Perkins went up for a layup, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant converged, and Perkins landed awkwardly after Bynum chopped down on him. Perkins immediately reached for his right knee and signaled for the team trainer to come get him. Perkins was immobile for several minutes and needed to be assisted off the court by two teammates, unable to put any pressure on his leg.
"Doesn't look great," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of Perkins. "But I was disappointed. I thought we'd play better, and we didn't, and it happens."
Perkins didn't return with what was called a knee sprain, and the Celtics foundered in his absence. "Our energy went down a little bit," Rondo said after scoring just 10 points on 5-for-15 shooting, "but for the most part, that's not an excuse. We just came out and didn't have it."
The Lakers destroyed the Celtics on the glass, outrebounding them 30-13 in the first half. They finished with a 52-39 rebound edge, continuing the one trend that has been able to hold through this unpredictable series, with the team that won the rebound war also winning the game. "Our defense was good, our rebounding was better," Jackson said. "We had somd good luck, some good fortune."
After providing little in the form of reserve in Boston, the Lakers' second-unit came in and sent a charge through the building. The Lakers bench scored 13 of the team's first 17 points in the second period, with backup point guard Jordan Farmar adding an emphatic jack-hammer dunk over Garnett to give the Lakers a 45-25 lead.
Lamar Odom, who said he was battling flu-like symptoms in Boston, led the reserve brigade with eight points and 10 rebounds, while Sasha Vujacic added nine, including two three-pointers.
The Celtics are now 1-8 in close-out road games in the playoffs the past three seasons and haven't won a series away from TD Garden since beating Detroit at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., in Game 6 of the 2008 Eastern Conference finals. After failing to close out Orlando in the conference semifinals last season, the Celtics lost at home in a seventh game.
The Lakers and Celtics have the two best Game 7 records in NBA history. The Celtics are 20-6 all-time, having played four Game 7s in the past three seasons, going 3-1. The Lakers are 14-8 and haven't played a Game 7 since beating the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals last season.
"It's really a high tension situation," Jackson said. "Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. A lot of times, it's not about the coaching at that point. It's about who comes out and provides energy on the floor and plays the kind of game and dictates the kind of game they want to dictate."