Celtics pull off a stunning comeback

June 13, 2008 4:17:17 AM PDT
When the final horn sounded, after his team had pulled together and staged perhaps the greatest comeback in its famed history, Paul Pierce doubled over in exhaustion. He had given it his all.

Like the Celtics greats before him.

Showing the same grit and guts of Boston teams of yesteryear, the Celtics rallied from a 24-point deficit and beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-91 on Thursday night to take a commanding 3-1 lead in this history-rich series and move within one victory of a 17th championship that seemed impossible a year ago.

With a nod to Cousy, Russell, Bird, Havlicek and the other legends who have worn the green, these Celtics never quit.

"They just hung in there together," Boston coach Doc Rivers said.

And now they are just one win from another NBA title, their first since 1986.

"Yeah," Kevin Garnett said. "I can taste it."

And back in Boston, the faithful may be saying "its o-vah."

In their comeback season, the Celtics, who won only 24 games last season, saved their biggest one of all for the finals. They trailed 45-21 in the second quarter, 18 at halftime and were still down by 20 in the third quarter before rallying to stun the Lakers, who are in a deep hole they could have never imagined.

"I'm upset, hurt, disappointed," said Kobe Bryant, who didn't make a field goal in the first half and went just 6-of-19 from the field. "It's a huge loss."

An historic one, too.

Since the Elias Sports Bureau became the league's official statistician in 1971, Boston's comeback is unrivaled and topped the 20-point rally by Houston against Orlando in 1995.

"It's definitely a great win, one that you're going to put up there in the library and break back out one day for your kids to watch," Pierce said. "But I want nothing more than that ring right now."

Pierce scored 20 points, Garnett had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Ray Allen had 19 points, two coming on a marvelous reverse layup in the fourth as Boston's Big Three, thrown together last summer by general manager Danny Ainge to revive a franchise accustomed to hanging banners from the rafters, put the Lakers on the brink of a summer vacation.

But the Celtics' big trio got plenty of help as James Posey scored 18 points and Eddie House came off the bench to score 11, including a jumper with 4:07 left that gave Boston its first lead and one it would never give up.

The Celtics can reclaim their place atop pro basketball with a win in Game 5 on Sunday night in Los Angeles.

No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, and the Lakers don't appear ready to become the first.

Lamar Odom had 19 points - 15 in the first half - and Pau Gasol, whose addition in a midseason trade was supposed to give the Lakers their final piece to complement Bryant and get him a fourth title, had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Boston's remarkable rally was reminiscent of what Los Angeles did in Game 2, when the Lakers trimmed a 24-point deficit to two in the fourth quarter before the Celtics regrouped to open a 2-0 lead. But Boston had another 12 minutes to finish off theirs, and the green-and-white did.

"Some turnaround in that game. The air went out of the building," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was asked what he told his club afterward. "Well, it's not over. This is not over. The series is not over."

Boston's comeback included a 21-3 run over the final five minutes, fueled by two 3-pointers from House, who was getting more playing time because of Rajon Rondo's tender left ankle. The Celtics were still down by double digits with 2 minutes left in the third but closed the quarter with a 10-1 run, capped by P.J. Brown's dunk - a slam that could be felt all the way back to Boston's North End.

The Celtics, who scored only 14 points in the first quarter, finally caught the Lakers at 73-all on Leon Powe's jumper in the lane with 9:05 remaining, tying the score for the first time since it was 2-2 in the first minute.

At that point, the Lakers looked lost, confused, you name it. And when House hit an 18-foot jumper with 4:07 remaining, the Celtics had their first lead, 84-83. Boston's bench erupted, Lakers fans gasped and it was just a matter of time before they were heading out of Staples Center wondering what went wrong.

Byant, who except for a 36-point performance in Game 3 has been an ordinary superstar, tried to save the Lakers. He got them to 89-87 with a layup, but Posey drilled a 3-pointer to make it 92-87 with 1:13 left. Derek Fisher's long jumper got the Lakers within three.

But Pierce was fouled and made two free throws, forcing Jackson to call a timeout with 47 seconds to go. As the Lakers headed toward their bench, Pierce pumped his fists, flexed his muscles and let out a yell.

At the other end of the court, Bryant hung his head.

"They were determined not to let me beat them tonight," he said. "I saw three, four bodies every time I touched the ball."

With the Celtics ahead 94-91, Allen, who played all 48 minutes, sensed that Pierce had nothing left and drove for a layup to seal the win.

"It was huge," Rivers said. "It was really supposed to be a middle pick-and-roll with Kevin and Ray, and Ray waved Kevin off because he liked the matchup that he had already, so he didn't want to bring another defender in to help. It was a great call by Ray. The layup was just tremendous."

Notes: Allen is first player to play the entire finals game since Jason Kidd did it for New Jersey in 2003. ... The Lakers fell one win shy of matching the playoff record of 10 straight home victories in the same postseason. ... Boston's 14 first-quarter points were just one more than the finals record low for a first quarter set by Fort Wayne in 1955 and Milwaukee in 1974. ...

Celtics F Kendrick Perkins suffered a sprained left shoulder in the third quarter and did not return. ... Some of Hollywood's brightest stars glimmered, including the usuals: Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington and Dyan Cannon. They were joined by former NFL star Jerry Rice, actress Jennifer Garner with husband Ben Affleck, singer Justin Timberlake and Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart.