It was Bryant who came up with the game's biggest play. With 40 seconds left and the Lakers clinging to a 97-95 lead, Garnett set a high screen for Pierce, a play which had constituted about 90% of the Celtics' offense in the second half. Pierce used the screen to get by Bryant, but the Laker reached from behind the Boston star and flicked the ball away. It was a clean play, Pierce, who finished with 38 points, would concede later. The ball went right to Odom; he threw a perfect pass downcourt to a streaking Bryant, whose resounding dunk gave L.A. a four-point lead that would hold up.
"Paul protects the ball extremely well," said Bryant, "but as soon as I noticed the ball was exposed a little bit, it was important for me to go after it."
And so it was back across the country for both tired teams. The Celtics retained home court advantage, but there were concerns: Perkins's injury status; Rondo's status in general; Garnett's confidence, after he missed three key fourth-quarter free throws that could have made the difference in Game 5. "That [the missed foul shots] will definitely haunt me tonight," KG admitted after the game. And there was the memory of Game 2, when the Celtics blew nearly all of a 24-point lead.
"We wanted to go home," said Rivers, "we just didn't want to be playing."
The loyalists at TD Banknorth Garden didn't feel that way, though. They hadn't enjoyed a potentially climactic Game 6 at home since 1986, when the Celtics skunked the Houston Rockets 114-97 to win the title. They would be there in force.
June 17, TD Banknorth Garden, Boston
CELTICS 131, LAKERS 92
Could anyone have seen this coming? Was there something different about Garnett's primal scream, which plays on the arena scoreboard before the game to get the home crowd jacked? Or was it just, at this point in the season, that the Celtics were simply a better team?
"They showed us their strength," Jackson would say when it was all over.
And it was all over relatively quickly. Bryant once again got the Lakers off, hitting four shots over Ray Allen in the first 6� minutes of the game, three of them three-pointers. For the Lakers, though, that is always a dicey path to victory. The Celtics' defense is simply too good not to catch up to Bryant eventually, frustrate him with three defenders ( Allen, Pierce and Posey) and put up the vaunted wall that keeps the Lakers' superstar from getting to the hoop. And when Garnett almost matched Bryant's first-quarter output (11-10), one could almost see the stoop in Bryant's shoulders.
"They defended me well tonight," Bryant said after the game. "They defended me well the whole series."