LOS ANGELES - Magic Johnson looked very nervous. Across the court, Jack Nicholson fidgeted with his sunglasses, Sylvester Stallone squirmed in his seat and nearly everyone else styling in shades of purple and gold was on edge.
The Los Angeles Lakers, kings of the Western Conference, were in real trouble, end-of-the-season kind of trouble.
Kobe Bryant pulled them out of it.
On his floor and on his game, Bryant revived the Lakers — and the NBA finals.
Bryant scored 36 points with an MVP-worthy performance, Sasha Vujacic added 20 points and the Lakers, teetering on the brink of falling into an impossible hole in the NBA finals, beat the Boston Celtics 87-81 in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
L.A.’s brightest sports star, Bryant was California cool.
“What I tried to do with my teammates is just stay calm,” he said. “It wasn’t the end of the world. They did a great job of defending home court. We knew we had to come here and do the same. They feed off of my confidence and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win.”
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.
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 but only 2-8 on the road in this postseason, made the Lakers play a more physical, Eastern Conference-style game and nearly walked away with a win.
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.
“As bad as we played, we still had opportunities,” Allen said. “That’s the positive. We can look at it, but I don’t think on either side of the floor we were good. We had so much more room for improvement.”
But the whistles were more well-balanced as Los Angeles took 34 free throws to Boston’s 22.
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 Nicholson in his familiar courtside seat, grew uneasy.
But Bryant calmed their twitching nerves quickly.
On the Lakers’ next possession, Bryant, whose shot wouldn’t drop in Boston, 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.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson knew whom to credit for the win.
“I think undoubtedly it’s the leadership of Kobe Bryant,” he said. “He was aggressive right from the start, put the defense on its heels.”
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.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers figured Bryant would take over the series at some point, but he didn’t expect Vujacic, who scored a combined 16 points in Games 1 and 2, to be such a factor.
“Kobe was fantastic but I thought Vujacic was the key to the game,” he said. “I said before we are going to have to win a game when Kobe Bryant plays well. We know that. But when that happens, we have to shut off the other avenues.”
“It was not a beautiful ballgame,” Jackson said. “That’s a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. But we’ll have a day to catch up tomorrow and hopefully both of us will play better basketball on Thursday night.”
With the Lakers down 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.
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