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L.A. got back into the series with a 103-98 roller coaster victory in Game 5 thanks to 25 points and five steals by Bryant and now trails Boston 3-2.
Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, “We're young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this.”
For being so young and dumb, they sure do learn quick.
Just like Tiger shrugged off his early bogeys to come up with the birdie he needed when it mattered most, the Lakers were able to block out any thoughts of déjà vu to seal the win after the Celtics stormed back from a double-digit deficit.
“We learned from [Game 4],” Luke Walton said. “We really gave away a golden opportunity and when you make mistakes like that you learn and we didn’t get down on ourselves like we did in Game 4. We stayed with it, we stayed aggressive.”
On Thursday the Lakers had a 24-point lead in the second quarter that disappeared midway through the fourth quarter. On Sunday a Jordan Farmar layup on the Lakers’ first possession of the second quarter pushed the home team’s lead to 19 points. By the time Bryant missed a baseline jumper on L.A.’s last possession of the quarter, the lead had dwindled to just three.
It was eerily similar to the third quarter of Game 4 when the Lakers entered with an 18-point lead and exited with just a two-point edge.
“I went in at halftime and said, ‘Thank God we don't have a [big] lead,’” Jackson said. “It's important we don't have something like that because we just don't know what to do with it anyway, and they were able to come out and give it up right off the bat, but scrap back.”
The Lakers built their early lead mainly because of Bryant, who nearly matched his Game 4 total of 17 points in the first quarter alone when he had 15.
Bryant was just 2-for-10 in The Finals from three-point land and was only shooting .284 from deep in the playoffs overall, but here he was in the first quarter bombing away and hitting 4-for-5 from outside.
While Kobe would eventually cool off – he finished 8-for-21 from the field and 4-for-9 from beyond the arc – his first quarter burst got his team going and seemed to lift any thoughts of Sunday potentially being an elimination game from the minds of the Lakers.
“[Kobe] set the tone of the game,” Jackson said. “[He] had a lot of energy out there, got a rhythm going, got confidence built for the team.”
The popular sentiment amongst basketball writers and analysts is that a transcendent scorer like Bryant isn’t about to go down in an elimination game with bullets left in his holster, but it turned out that Bryant’s defense was his weapon of choice in Game 5.
With less than a minute to go and the game starting to look as bleak as a Siberian winter to the sellout crowd of 18,997 in attendance, Bryant made the play of the day.
Paul Pierce, fresh off two free throws on the C’s previous possession that cut the Lakers’ lead to two and increased his bountiful total to 38, was bringing the ball up the court.
Bryant made what Pierce described as “just a great defensive play” by poking the ball away from the Celtics' leader. Lamar Odom picked up the loose ball, flung it ahead to a streaking Bryant, who finished what he started with a two-handed dunk.
After the slam Bryant hung on the rim just a half-second extra, probably enjoying the soaring feeling of being up in the air after feeling so low the last couple of days because of what happened to the Lakers’ lead in Game 4.
The steal and dunk gave L.A. a 99-95 lead with :37.4 seconds remaining and the Lakers held on for the win.
If Bryant set the tone of the game for L.A., Odom and Pau Gasol filled in the melody. The lanky duo combined for 39 points and 24 rebounds and caused Boston’s frontline of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and P.J. Brown to pick up five fouls apiece.
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher scored 15 points and Farmar chipped in 11 points off the bench.
There was a key sequence in the second quarter with the Lakers up by eight when Farmar airballed a 3-pointer after getting a great look at the top of the key. The Celtics responded with a made three by Ray Allen to cut the Lakers lead to five. On L.A.’s next possession, Bryant drove into the lane, seemingly out to score on his own before glimpsing Farmar on the left wing at the last second. Bryant whipped it out to Farmar and he calmly buried the three this time around.
You have to adapt to survive in the jungle and on the basketball court.
L.A. was able to do so by being the aggressors in Game 5.
They survive and they advance, to Boston for Game 6 on Tuesday (9 ET, ABC).
Not bad for a bunch of young, dumb guys.