By Ian Thomsen
June 13, 2008

The Lakers are like a spread-the-field passing team. Once they build a lead, they don't know how to run out the clock.

In this case, the lead was an NFL-ish 24 points in the first half, and a concrete 20 with 19 minutes to go. The visiting Celtics lacked Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins with injuries, Paul Pierce was coming off a dead-leg Game 3 with his knee still wrapped in a brace and the Lakers were getting 25 halftime points (10-of-13 combined shooting) from the revived Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. They would get double figures from all of their starters, while earning more free throws, rebounds and assists than the Celtics.

Boston 97, Los Angeles 91: The one stat the Lakers still can't get their heads around.

As Kobe Bryant trudged to the far end of the court with 3.6 seconds left, he could have used a football helmet to cut off his peripheral vision of the thousands of his fans turning their backs on him as they pushed their way up the aisles and out the doors. They had yielded the biggest comeback in the NBA Finals since records were first kept in 1971.

Even with their 3-1 lead, the Celtics can't be called a sure thing because more than half of their starting lineup is hurt, and who knows how close Pierce -- the presumptive Finals MVP -- is to further damaging his knee. Every evening, thus far, has come down to the final minutes; and as much as the Lakers may console themselves with the finite margins, they must acknowledge enormous deficits in terms of defense, toughness and capable playmakers under pressure. Apart from Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, these otherwise young Lakers don't know what they're doing here.

It's one thing for Odom to be exploding for 13 points and five boards in his perfect (6-for-6) first quarter. But where was he in the fourth (1-for-3 with one rebound)?

The biggest difference between these teams is that one is driven by pessimists, and it isn't the Lakers. The Lakers (Bryant excluded) are so young that they let Ray Allen drive through their lane with 16.4 seconds remaining like a tailback with no one left to beat. That's because their future is bright, and they can win it next year. The Celtics are so old and worried they'll never be here again that Pierce doesn't want to know the results of an MRI on his knee and therefore refuses the test entirely. Lifelong scorers like Pierce (20 points, seven assists), Allen (19 points and nine enormous rebounds) and Eddie House (nine second-half points on five shots) defend like Van Gundy cultists, and Kevin Garnett (16 points, 11 rebounds) is the tough, resilient meanie he was supposedly incapable of becoming.

When you're Allen, Pierce and Garnett and you've earned your pessimism by playing 35 long regular seasons before ever getting this far, you're not giving up the night just because the Lakers have you beat 45-21 in the second quarter. The fear of wasting this chance turns into strength of will, which leads Pierce at halftime to approach coach Doc Rivers with a strange request.

"Paul came to me and said, 'I want to guard Kobe,''' said Rivers. '"Let me guard him. I'm foul-less. I can commit some fouls, be physical with him.'''

And so it is written. A difficult night for Bryant became more difficult. Through three quarters (2-of-11 for seven points), his fellow starters were all outscoring him, and he finished with 17 points on 19 attempts to go with a highly impressive 10 assists, as he tried to develop his teammates' confidence to carry them through the fourth. "They were determined to not let me beat them tonight,'' said Bryant. "I saw three, four bodies every time I touched the ball.''

This is why nobody who wants to see the Lakers win should complain about Bryant yelling at his teammates. He needs to capture their attention. Desperately. They cannot be looking forward to a better day tomorrow. Or, in their case, next season.

The Celtics went small, spreading the floor with House and James Posey (18 points), whose 4-of-8 shooting from the arc was a huge contribution to the comeback. In the absence of Rondo for all but 17 minutes, Pierce and Allen became primary ballhandlers. The Allen who looked dead and buried two rounds ago against Cleveland has received an injection of flubber in his undersoles. If he wasn't stealing the ball three times or making like Rondo on the boards, he was dribbling circles around a Lakers defense that is literally spineless, as so exposed by Allen in the final seconds.

Having outscored their hosts 21-3 to end the third quarter, and having absorbed a 10-point, three-assist fourth quarter from Bryant to run neck-and-neck with the Lakers into the final minutes, Allen made three sensational drives to puncture Bryant's hopes. Bryant is the only Laker who desperately needs to win this Finals to satisfy career goals that are as yet beyond his teammates' understanding, and imagine how he felt watching Allen lose his balance before hopping back up like Curly Neal to dribble crosscourt and hit Posey for a three that required him to pose like an abstract of Michael Jordan, circa 1998.

That one brought the Celtics within a point of the Lakers (81-80) at 5:25 and counting. Two minutes later, Odom and the so-so Gasol (a line of 17 points and 10 rebounds that had Lakers fans pleading with him for more) had botched successive possessions out of the post when Allen made a double-play of instinct: a heady offensive rebound followed by a dramatic baseline reverse drive jammed in with spin off the glass.

The Lakers were still within 94-91 as Allen dribbled out the final half-minute above the keytop against Sasha Vujacic, who at one point looked over his shoulder ominously for help. But in this Finals, there has been no interior help. There are no Purple People Eaters playing for these Lakers, and Andrew Bynum isn't walking through that door. Pierce was so exhausted that he didn't ask for the ball, and Allen waved off a pick-and-roll with Garnett because he wanted the burden of shooting the free throws if it came to that.

But the Lakers couldn't even get a hand on him. He drove to his right around Vujacic, who yelled hopelessly over his shoulder to Gasol. But Jackson had told his players to stay home after the Posey three, and Allen skipped through for a layup that never should be so easy on the decisive play in a swing game of the NBA Finals.

"I thought that he was going to keep him in front of him,'' said Gasol. "I saw the shot clock going down and went to make sure I put a body on Garnett for the rebound, but I probably should have helped him, react to the penetration. I just wasn't expecting it.''

That's all right, you'll get them in Game 5 Sunday. Maybe. OK, probably not.

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