LOS ANGELES On his floor and on his game, Kobe Bryant revived the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA finals.
With his team one loss from having to make an impossible climb, Bryant was close to MVP form, scoring 36 points on an assortment of spins, drives and jumpers and reserve Sasha Vujacic added 20 points as the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 87-81 in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
A change of time zones, jerseys and attitude did wonders for the Lakers, who staggered home from Boston in an 0-2 hole and couldn't afford to fall any further behind in the first best-of-seven matchup between the league's marquee teams since 1987.
No team in NBA playoff history has ever overcome an 0-3 deficit.
Bryant made sure the Lakers won't have to.
And this time, the superstar got some help.
Vujacic, the self-proclaimed "Machine," made three 3-pointers, including a crucial one from the left corner with 1:53 left that gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead. Pau Gasol finally flexed his muscles with two inside baskets in the fourth quarter and Derek Fisher, who took an $8 million pay cut to come back and play for the Lakers, made two free throws with 1:33 remaining as the Lakers held on.
"We just wanted to play," said Bryant, whose only flaw was an 11-of-18 night from the foul line. "I don't think anyone was feeling desperate."
Game 4 is Thursday night at the Staples Center, where the Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs and unbeaten in 15 games since March 28.
But it took everything they had to keep that streak alive as the Celtics, two wins from their 17th NBA title, made the Lakers play a more physical, Eastern Conference-style game.
Ray Allen scored 25 points 15 on 3-pointers for the Celtics, but only one-third of Boston's Big Three showed up.
Kevin Garnett scored 13 points on just 6-of-21 shooting and Paul Pierce, playing a short drive from his childhood home, had only six points, missed 12 shots and was in foul trouble all night.
Los Angeles is trying to become the fourth team to come back from an 0-2 deficit, and with two more games at home, they've got a chance to turn this renewed rivalry around.
After Garnett's dunk brought the Celtics within 83-78 with 1:28 to go, Bryant made sure that it was he who took L.A.'s next shot. He drove on Allen to get some space, pulled up and drilled the kind of jumper he has practiced tens of thousands of times.
Eddie House, who gave Boston big minutes when Rajon Rondo went out with an injury, countered with a 3-pointer, and suddenly the Lakers' glitzy crowd, which included Jack Nicholson in his familiar courtside seat, grew uneasy.
But Bryant calmed their twitching nerves quickly.
On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant backed down in the lane and dropped in a short jumper to make it 87-81.
House missed for Boston, both teams committed silly offensive fouls in the closing seconds, and when the final horn sounded, the Lakers could finally relax.
This game won't be remembered as one of the better ones in the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but it did have a few moments of the physical nastiness that defined their matchups during the 1980s.
With the Lakers down by two and running out of time in the fourth, Bryant took a pass from Luke Walton at the top of the key. Knowing he was about to try a shot that could have lasting importance, Bryant gathered himself, measured the rim and let fly with a 3-pointer that gave Los Angeles a 69-68 lead with 6:55 left.
Fisher made two free throws and Bryant, who had missed seven from the line, knocked down two more foul shots as the Lakers went up 73-68.
Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., where he learned to play in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum, the Lakers' former home where Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and "Showtime" had an extended run of championship seasons.
But Pierce's finals homecoming was homely.
The Celtics' star forward, who came in averaging 25 points in the series, went just 2-for-14 and missed all four 3-pointers.
Despite his struggles, the Celtics were only down by six in the first minute of the third quarter when Rondo went down with a sprained left ankle. As he laid on the floor, his teammates rushed over to check on Rondo, who limped off the court without aid or a wheelchair like Pierce needed after hurting his knee in the opener.
House, who hadn't played in a minute in the series, replaced Rondo and drilled a 3-pointer and Garnett scored underneath before finally making a jumper as Boston took a 51-49 lead. Moments later, Allen stuck a 3-pointer that sent Boston's bench bounding onto the floor when the Lakers had to call a timeout.
The Lakers didn't have to endure the deafening chants of "Beat L.A." Instead, they warmed up to Randy Newman's "I Love L.A" and Los Angeles fans screamed "Boston (Stinks)" every chance they could.
Unlike Game 2, when so much of the pregame attention was on Pierce's sprained knee, the chatter before tipoff included uneasy discussions about past officiating.
The league was again having to deal with allegations made by former referee Tim Donaghy, who claims in court documents that NBA referees rigged the 2002 playoff series between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
Commissioner David Stern reiterated the league's stance that Donaghy acted alone and feels his lawyers were using Game 3's platform to help their client.
After Game 2, coach Phil Jackson, Bryant and a few other Lakers had made pointed and sarcastic comments about the lopsided whistles. But if they were worried about there being any favoritism toward Boston, they were mistaken as the Lakers attempted 14 free throws four more than in all of Game 2 in the first quarter.
Los Angeles took 34 free throws to Boston's 22.
With Vujacic and Bryant doing most of the damage, Los Angeles built an 11-point lead in the second quarter and the West's best moved the ball better on the offensive end than they did in either game in Boston. The Lakers were up by 10, and everything was going according to plan when Bryant got slapped with a technical for complaining about a non-call with 2:18 left.
The Celtics then closed the half with a short burst, capped by Allen's 3-pointer and were within 43-37 at the break despite getting just 2 points apiece from Garnett and Pierce, who shot a combined 2-for-16. Garnett's only basket came on an alley-oop dunk.