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Steve Aschburner

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The Celtics withstood Kobe's best shot and head to L.A. with a 3-2 series lead.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Celtics survive 'Black Mamba' strike, own 3-2 series lead


Posted Jun 14 2010 1:41AM

BOSTON -- Every time Boston coach Doc Rivers talked about it -- and usually he was the one raising the topic, early and often over the past week and a half -- he did so with an odd sense of calm. Eventually, Rivers would remind almost anyone who would listen, Kobe Bryant was going to hang "a big number" on his team in a 2010 NBA Finals game. And the Celtics would have to try to win in spite of it.

It sounded less like a promise or a challenge to his players, frankly, and more like the way one faces other inevitable, unenviable and grim tasks in life. Such as tax audits, trips to the periodontist or home videos of the neighbors' vacation to Chattanooga.

And then it happened: the Black Mamba struck.

The Celtics, sticking with Bryant's self-styled nickname, carved a little "X" on their arms, sucked out the venom, spit and smiled Sunday night at TD Garden.

They took, if not Bryant's and the Lakers' very best shot, at least his best heretofore in The Finals. And they did win in spite of it, a 92-86 victory in Game 5 that put them up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series with two shots to bring back to Boston their second NBA title in three years and 18th overall.

Bryant, the most feared scorer in the NBA (even Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and LeBron James would concur), scored 19 points in the third quarter and 38 in the game, tops for anyone in this series. He took nine shots in the first seven minutes and seven seconds after halftime, hit seven of them, drained three three-pointers and added two free throws. He came within six points of Isiah Thomas' Finals record for points in a period (25, Game 6 vs. L.A. Lakers, June 1988) and topped 30 for the 14th time in this postseason.

Bryant put fear into the Boston fans and the smell of sulfur into the Garden air. Yet when the smoke cleared -- when the third quarter ended and the Celtics checked their assorted body parts -- Boston's halfway had bumped from six (45-39) to eight (73-65).

All Kobe, all the time hadn't earned the Lakers a thing. Except a slightly bigger hole from which to climb out of and 12 less minutes to do so.

For Los Angeles, that was a problem. For Boston, that was poise.

"It's amazing what that does to your team," Rivers said. "We were up, I think, 12 or 10 when he was making that run and we had to sue a timeout to settle our guys down. ... You could see they wanted to change the defense, they wanted to start trapping, and I just tried to keep telling them, 'It's only two points each time he scores. It's not 10. It's just like if someone else was scoring.' As long as we were going to keep scoring the way we were scoring, we were going to be good."

The Celtics in fact scored 24 points on their first 14 possessions in the third quarter. They hit 12 of 19 shots (63.2 percent) and got 16 of their points that period in the paint. Meanwhile, the Lakers' attack -- already shaky -- ground to a halt aside from Bryant.

Coach Phil Jackson didn't seem to mind what looked like an overreliance on Bryant -- "He's the kind of guy you ride a hot hand, that's for sure," the coach said. But after his team shot 33.3 percent as a group in the first half, the L.A. guys other than Bryant combined to go 3-of-10 when they weren't completely spectating on their star. It never got much better, either, because when Pau Gasol hit 1 of 2 free throws with 2:25 left in the game, Los Angeles finally got a second scorer into double figures.

And when the Lakers talked about that third quarter, it was defense that got mentioned, not Bryant's streak of scoring. Bad as their offense was -- just 12 assists (second fewest all season), six of Gasol's 12 shots coming only off offensive rebounds, a playoff-low 86 points -- things were worse at the other end.

"We called a timeout and got into their faces a little bit about how we got ourselves on the wrong side of people and gave up layups," Jackson said.

Said Bryant: "The offensive part of the game kind of comes and goes. ... I just thought defensively we weren't very good at all. Last game it was the fourth quarter, this game it was the third quarter. They got layup after layup after layup."

What Boston did mostly was keep on being Boston. When it might have scrambled for a kitchen sink to throw at Bryant defensively, it stuck to the plan -- Rivers even made sure to put Tony Allen on Bryant rather than Paul Pierce, for fear of draining Pierce's offense. Instead of neglecting their own attack as he tried to tilt the floor one way, the Celtics kept moving the ball; all five starters scored in the third, led by Pierce's 11, and Rajon Rondo had five of his team's eight assists.

"I was very concerned when Kobe did that that we were going to stop playing offense because we were so concerned defensively," Rivers said. "But we were scoring and we had great rhythm."

The Celtics might not have seen or withstood the absolute best Bryant can throw at them -- he once scored 81 in a game, after all, and 50 in a playoff game -- but they dealt swiftly and completely with him very close to that best. They also threw a few of their own inevitables and unenviables at the Lakers, such as 56.3 percent shooting and Boston's Big Four all clicking pretty well on the same night.

The Lakers didn't buck up quite as well for their root canal. Nothing calm nor serene about it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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