Lakers facing must-win as they return home

Published 1:33 am Tuesday, June 15, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Down 3-2 in the NBA finals against an old foe that keeps finding new ways to beat them, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to need a big Hollywood ending to escape this jam with another championship.

That’s exactly where they’ll make their last stand against the Boston Celtics.

Game 6 is back home Tuesday night at Staples Center, where the Lakers are 9-1 in the postseason, with everybody from Kobe Bryant to the Lakers’ bedraggled bench playing with much more passion and confidence.

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“If you look at it, they’ve come home and carried the 3-2 lead back,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s basically home court, home court. Now we’re going back to home court to win it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?”

Sure, on paper. But two straight losses in Boston led to a dire series deficit for the Lakers, who hadn’t even trailed in any playoff series this season. The Celtics have won three of the last four games, and they’re responsible for Los Angeles’ only home loss of the playoffs.

So why didn’t Jackson or Bryant seem particularly worried before they headed out on their final cross-country flight of the postseason? Throughout a trying season filled with injuries and big-game setbacks since a Christmas Day loss to Cleveland, the Lakers have always been able to rise when they absolutely needed to do it.

Jackson even described the Lakers’ locker room as “spirited” after losing Game 5 in their lowest-scoring performance of the postseason in the 92-86 loss. For all their struggles in Boston, the Lakers realize they only have to defend their home court to win their 16th title.

“We have a challenge, obviously, down 3-2,” said Bryant, who scored 38 points in Game 5 while his struggling teammates only managed 48. “We let a couple opportunities slip away, but it is what it is. Now you go home, you’ve got two games at home that you need to win, and you pull your boots up and get to work.”

If Los Angeles survives, a champion will be crowned Thursday in Game 7.

Heading into the finals, the Celtics believed they could beat the Lakers, even with Bryant at his spectacular best, if they shut down his teammates. After all, that’s what Boston did two years ago in the finals — and so far, it’s working splendidly again.

Bryant is averaging 30.2 points per game, while Pau Gasol averages 18.8 points and 10 rebounds despite glaring inconsistency in his game in Boston. That’s just about it: Nobody else in purple and gold is averaging more than Andrew Bynum’s 9.6 points per game.

Yet after losing Game 1 and only surviving Game 2 with Ray Allen’s 3-point shooting binge and Rajon Rondo’s late-game poise, the Celtics aren’t fooled into thinking they’ve got the Lakers on the run in Los Angeles. Boston’s current starting five has never lost a playoff series for reasons that go beyond their talent.

“They’re playing at home. Home is always where your heart is,” Boston’s Kevin Garnett said. “With the severity of the game, it’s all-out on both ends for both teams. This will probably be the hardest game of the season, if not of the series, if not of everybody’s career, this game coming up.”

Yet two straight losses undeniably have frazzled the Lakers a bit, with Bryant noticeably furious on the court while Game 5 slipped away. Even Jackson seemed a bit testier than his usual placid self, yelling at Bryant and Ron Artest during the game and later attempting to inspire his team in the fourth quarter with a false bit of information about the Celtics’ propensity for blowing late-game leads.

Jackson likely senses the biggest danger yet to his streak of 47 straight playoff series victories after winning Game 1. The Celtics sense a golden opportunity for their 18th championship and a chance to join the Boston greats who won multiple titles while repeatedly denying the Lakers nine previous times in the NBA finals.

“The Lakers … got homecourt advantage, but we’ve played the best all year on the road,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re going to have to beat them at their best, because they’re going to be great there, and we can’t expect anything else.”

Los Angeles’ inside game has been its most decided advantage throughout the season, yet Boston largely has outplayed Gasol, the limping Bynum and Lamar Odom down low. The Celtics outscored Los Angeles in the paint 46-32 in Game 5, while the Lakers blocked just one shot — and Bryant did it.

Aside from Artest and his miserable series, the Lakers’ least effective regular has been Odom, the reserve dynamo who played a major role in their Western Conference finals victory over Phoenix. Odom, who said he had symptoms of the flu this weekend, had eight points and eight rebounds in Game 5, along with three turnovers in a fairly passive performance.

The rest of the Lakers’ reserves were even worse: Sasha Vujacic scored five points, Jordan Farmar had one, and formerly reliable Shannon Brown played just 19 seconds.

And then there’s Artest, the only newcomer to last season’s championship roster. With the Boston crowd vocally urging him to shoot, Artest went 2 for 9 in Game 5 to drop to 13 for 43 in the series.

His inconsistent offensive skills and shaky ball-handling abilities have abandoned him entirely in the finals, leaving only his defense — and he played precious little of it in Game 5, when Pierce scored 27 points with Artest and Bryant taking turns on him.

“The offensive part of (Artest’s) game kind of comes and goes,” Bryant said. “He does a great job giving us great production most nights. I just thought defensively we weren’t very good at all. We didn’t get any stops (in the third quarter of Game 5). They got layup after layup after layup, and you can’t survive a team that shoots 56 percent. We’re normally a great defensive team.”