LOS ANGELES Paul Pierce took the Boston Celtics to the brink of another improbable comeback and then let it slip out of his hands.
The All-Star scored 38 points in Game 5 of the NBA finals against Los Angeles on Sunday night, but twice in the final minutes let Kobe Bryant slap the ball away as the Lakers held on to win 103-98 and force the series back to Boston.
Game 6 is Tuesday night, and the Celtics would have another chance to close out their 17th NBA title on Thursday night if they need it.
The Celtics overcame a 24-point deficit to win Game 4 in Los Angeles, and they fell behind quickly in Game 5 as well. The Lakers took a 41-22 lead with the first basket of the second quarter, and again the Celtics mounted a comeback.
With the other starters resting or in foul trouble, Pierce scored 13 of Boston's next 17 points and also helped out on the other two baskets with an assist and a steal as the Celtics cut a 41-22 deficit to four points with a 15-0 run.
Pierce, an L.A. native facing the team he followed as a kid, had 26 at the half and finished with eight assists and six rebounds while playing every minute until the very end.
But with just over 3 minutes left and the Celtics trailing 94-91, Bryant slapped the ball away from Pierce to make it a two-possession game. It was 97-95 when Pierce grabbed a rebound and brought the ball across halfcourt.
Again, Bryant poked it loose to Lamar Odom, who threw it upcourt to the streaking Bryant for a clinching dunk.