BOSTON – It’s looking a lot like 2008 again, with Paul Pierce carrying the Boston Celtics to victory in the NBA finals and leading them to the brink of yet another title.
Pierce scored 27 points – his best performance of this year’s finals – and the Celtics withstood 38 points from Kobe Bryant to beat the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers 92-86 on Sunday night and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Game 6 is Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and a victory then or in Game 7 in L.A. on Thursday would give the Celtics a record 18th NBA title.
The Celtics have never blown a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals.
“You don’t want to go out to LA down 3-2. It was our biggest game of the year,” Pierce said. “We’re in a good spot. We have two games in L.A.; now we have to get one.”
Pierce was the MVP of the ’08 finals, when the new Big Three beat the Lakers to raise an NBA-record 17th banner to the rafters at Boston’s TD Garden. Bryant was the finals MVP last year, when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic to win their 15th championship.
“I wasn’t in a personal duel,” Pierce said. “I didn’t notice that we were going back-and-forth scoring at the time. He’s a tough player. He makes shots.”
Bryant outscored Pierce this time, but the Lakers’ guard got little help from his teammates. And the stretch where he was most dominant was also the time when the Celtics pulled away.
Kevin Garnett scored 18 points with 10 rebounds and Rajon Rondo had 18 points, eight assists and five rebounds to help Boston become the first team in the series to win two games in a row. If Los Angeles can’t do the same at home, the Celtics will improve to 10-2 against them in the finals dating to a 4-0 sweep over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959.
“It’s basically home-court,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?”
Bryant did everything he could to send the Lakers home with the edge.
He scored 23 straight Lakers points between the 4:23 mark of the second quarter until there was 2:16 left in the third. But over that span, the Celtics expanded the lead from one point to 13.
“I just tried to keep telling them, it’s only two points each time he scores. It’s not 10,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s just like if someone else was scoring. … I love that our guys for the most part, they understood what he was doing. But we defended everyone else. And I thought it was big.”
The Lakers got within six points several times, but never within five until Bryant made three free throws to make it 87-82 with 90 seconds left.
After each team missed shots, the Celtics called timeout. A desperate inbounds pass went to Pierce, who fed Rondo under the basket before falling out of bounds, and Rondo made an over-the-head layup to make it 89-82 with 36 seconds left.
“I was just showing off my Randy Moss and my (Tom) Brady the whole play,” Pierce said. “I was Randy when I caught it; then Brady on my pass to Rondo.”
Bryant missed a series of desperation 3-pointers down the stretch, and when Ray Allen made two free throws with 19 seconds left and Garnett one of two with 8.9 to play, it was over.
Pau Gasol scored 12 points with 12 rebounds and Derek Fisher, the Game 3 star, scored all nine of his points in the first quarter.
Lakers forward Adam Morrison was active for the first time in the NBA finals and third time in Los Angeles’ 20 playoff games. He replaced center DJ Mbenga, who has played in just two of those 20 games. The former Gonzaga standout did not play.