Stud Of The Night Kobe Bryant wasn't going to be held down for three straight games. With his team's title hopes on the line, the MVP had 36 points (on 12-of-20 shooting) and seven rebounds Tuesday night to lead the way as L.A. rallied past Boston to pull within 2-1 in the Finals. Unlike in the first two games, Bryant (pictured) had no problem getting to the basket -- or the foul line -- in Game 3. He was aggressive from the start, scoring inside or drawing fouls, to keep the Lakers offense going on a night when his supporting cast (other than Sasha Vujacic) struggled. Bryant also helped key a spirited team defensive effort that held Boston to 29-of-83 shooting (34.9 percent). His defense on Celtics star Paul Pierce (see below) was almost as big for the Lakers on this night.
Dud Of The Night Pierce's homecoming was anything but happy. The Celtics star, who grew up in nearby Inglewood, Calif., missed 12 of 14 shots (including all four of his three-point attempts) en route to a playoff-low six points. Shadowed by Bryant much of the night, Pierce just could not get it going. He got in early foul trouble, committed three turnovers, and even shot an airball. On a night when Kevin Garnett also struggled shooting the ball, hitting just 6 of 21, the Celtics couldn't afford to have Pierce come up empty. "It's frustrating ... but by no means does it break my confidence," Pierce said.
Unsung Hero Of The Night The "Machine" finally got it revved up. Vujacic came off the bench for a Leon Powe-like contribution in Game 3, racking up 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting to provide a huge lift for the Lakers. The fourth-year guard, who came in averaging 8 points over the first two games, had 12 in the first half alone Tuesday to help keep the Lakers in the game. He then hit two big three-pointers in the fourth, including a dagger from the left corner with 1:53 left that gave L.A. an 81-76 lead. "Kobe was fantastic, but I thought Sasha Vujacic was the key to the game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Play Of The Night It was Kobe's only three-pointer of the night, but it was a biggie. With the Lakers trailing by two and just under eight minutes to play, Lakers reserve forward Luke Walton drove in and fed a pass to Bryant, who was standing wide open behind the three-point line at the top. Bryant promptly buried the shot to give the Lakers the lead at 69-68 and send the Staples Center crowd into a frenzy. It was part of a 10-point fourth-quarter for Bryant, who turned and pumped his fist. L.A. would go on to score the next four points, and the Celtics were never able to catch them.
Courtside Confidential L.A. fans are clearly excited about their team's return to the Finals after a four-year absence, but the atmosphere in Staples Center for Game 3 seemed decidedly more low-key than it was in Boston. No T-shirt giveaways, no "Beat Boston" chants. Maybe it's because the Lakers have been here five times this decade. ... Predictably, Pierce was a target for the Staples crowd. One fan held a sign that showed a picture of Pierce's face with the words The Truth crossed out, replaced with The Faker. When Pierce tumbled into the baseline stands chasing a loose ball in the first quarter, a fan yelled "Where's your wheelchair?" ... As expected the series is starting to get chippy. P.J. Brown and Jordan Farmar got into a tussle in the first half, and Powe and Ronny Turiaf briefly went face-to-face in the fourth. ... While the Boston crowd featured a lot of sports figures, the Lakers brought out some of Hollywood's A-list. Celebrities in the crowd Tuesday night included Eddie Murphy, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Bruce Willis, and, of course, Jack Nicholson. ... American Idol winner David Cook sang the national anthem, just across the street from the Nokia Theater where he won the competition last month. After rehearsing at midcourt two hours before the game, Cook went over and shot some free throws.
Look Ahead It wasn't pretty, but the Lakers did what they had to do. Kobe found his way to the basket, the bench got untracked, and the defense rose to the occasion. Now, they just have to do it again in Thursday night's Game 4. The Celtics, meanwhile, can take comfort in the fact that Pierce and Garnett couldn't shoot the ball into the Pacific and yet they were still in the game until the bitter end. Not a good sign for the Lakers. Boston only needs one victory over the next two games to head home with a 3-2 lead, so L.A. still has a long way to go.
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