for this game

Bryant's defense keeps Lakers' season alive

Jun 16, 2008 - 6:04 AM By Jonathan Raber PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES (Ticker) -- Kobe Bryant delivered on his words - for the time being, at least.

A day after declaring that the series was far from over, Bryant finished with 25 points and five steals to help the Los Angeles Lakers stave off elimination with a 103-98 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the NBA Finals on Sunday.

Bryant came through with the game's biggest sequence, beginning with a steal that led to a breakaway dunk with 37 seconds remaining as the Lakers' slim title hopes remained alive.

"The important thing for me is to push the buttons at the right time," Bryant said. "The key is setting the tone if we are going through a drought ... to make the correct play and generate energy for our ballclub. That's really become my new role now more so than in the past where it was 35, 40 points."

Los Angeles now trails, 3-2, in the best-of-seven series and must capture the next two games in Boston - where the Celtics are 12-1 this postseason - beginning with Tuesday's Game Six.

No team in NBA history has comeback from a 3-1 deficit and, since the league switched to the 2-3-2 Finals format in 1985, no team has won the last two games on the road. The Lakers are attempting to do both.

"It's not going to be easy, but we feel like we can get it done," Lakers center Pau Gasol said.

Bryant got the support he's been looking for all series in this one, with Lamar Odom and Gasol each awakening with big games. Odom contributed 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, while Gasol had 19, 13 and six assists.

"Lamar obviously did a terrific job tonight and I think everybody defensively played extremely well," Bryant said. "But that's what we're going to need."

With a crushing Game Four loss - in which they blew a league-record 24-point lead - fresh in their minds, the Lakers came dangerously close to duplicating the result, allowing the Celtics to answer back from down 19-point, first-half hole to even the score.

But Los Angeles wouldn't allow Boston to steal a win this time, despite some resistance from Paul Pierce, who poured in 38 points - including 12 in the fourth - to keep his team in the hunt.

"I notice, when I'm aggressive, everybody else is aggressive," Pierce said. "So I just wanted to make plays."

Bryant's basket with 9:16 remaining in the fourth quarter gave the Lakers an 11-point lead before the Celtics followed with an 11-0 run over the next five minutes to make it 90-90 after Garnett's jumper.

The Celtics were able to stay within two points but failed to capitalize with the opportunity to tie it or go ahead in the waning minutes. Garnett missed a pair of free throws with 2:31 left followed by Pierce turning the ball over on Bryant's pivotal play.

Pierce had made it 97-95 with a pair of free throws and, following a Lakers' miss, proceeded up court where he had the ball poked away from behind by Bryant, who streaked in the other direction and received Odom's pass for the uncontested finish and a four-point lead.

"As soon as I noticed the ball was exposed just a little bit, it was important for me to go after it," Bryant said.

"I thought it was great defense," Pierce said. "I wouldn't ask for the ref for a call down the stretch. You let the players decide the game, and I thought that's what happened."

Odom then iced it with a pair of late free throws.

It appeared in the early going like the Lakers were going to win handily for the second straight contest.

They quickly went up by 17 points in the first quarter behind Bryant, who nailed four 3-pointers en route to 15 points in the period. That advantage eventually ballooned 19 points less than one minute into the second quarter.

Unfazed, the Celtics dug into the deficit until they trailed by three points on Pierce's shot from the arc before the halftime buzzer. They would tie it at 60-60 with 9:08 left in the third before taking their first lead of the night on the following possession on Rajon Rondo's jumper from the wing.

"(The Celtics) are a tough-minded team," Odom said. "We expect a fight, and we just have to fight long and hard."

Although the goal of wrapping up the title out West wasn't accomplished, Boston finds itself in good shape headed home.

"That's why the regular season is so important," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "We fought for it all year. We have Game Six at home, and that's not a bad place to be."