BOSTON - The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are headed to a pivotal Game 5 of the NBA finals, the latest big moment in basketball’s biggest rivalry.
The Celtics can move a win away from an 18th championship, and a 10th in 12 meetings with the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant can inch closer to a fifth title, a chance to further cement his legacy.
Have to love it, right?
Not if you’re Bryant.
“I’m miserable,” he said Saturday.
That’s because of the Celtics, who guarded him well in the fourth quarter of their 96-89 victory Thursday that evened the series at two games apiece, simply won’t allow him to be as spectacular as he was against Phoenix in the previous round.
Game 5 is Sunday, and the Lakers expect to have center Andrew Bynum back after he played only 12 minutes in Game 4 because of a sore right knee.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson thought Bryant looked tired in that game, and Bryant was even asked if he’d tweaked his knee. Combine that with all the talk of how well the Celtics have defended him, and suddenly those doubters that surfaced when Bryant looked so worn down late in the regular season are popping up again.
He can silence them again with a big effort Sunday. That’s not easy against these Celtics, who didn’t flinch when they had to face Dwyane Wade in the first round or LeBron James in the second, and weren’t fazed when Bryant scored 30 in the Lakers’ series-opening victory.
Bryant managed only two field goals in the decisive fourth quarter of Game 4, and Boston limited him to only one in the last 12 minutes of the previous game.
“They don’t want me to beat them, so they put three guys there,” Bryant said. “Nothing we haven’t seen before, it’s just when you win those games, like Game 3, nobody talks about that because we take advantage of it. And if you lose the game, everybody talks about that. It’s part of the process.”
Moody but not as angry as he was during most of last year’s finals, when his own kids were calling him “Grumpy,” Bryant said he hadn’t been watching any coverage during the off days. So he’s missed the highlights of Nate Robinson leaping onto Glen Davis’ back as those reserves powered the Celtics down the stretch of Game 4.
“Definitely that’s one, but you also know it’s a Game 5 and it’s 2-2. I don’t think there’s anything either one of us can say that is going to rile us up any more than being in a Game 5 in the finals tied 2-2,” Rivers said.
“But, yeah, Kobe is pretty competitive from what I hear, so there’s no doubt that the more you talk about it, the more the target is on. But that’s fine. The one thing I know about Tony, he’s not going anywhere. He’ll be there.”
And he’ll have help. With Pau Gasol the only other Laker who’s hurt them, the Celtics can afford to turn even more attention to Bryant, who is averaging 28.3 points but on just 41 percent shooting.
“Our whole thing is all five guys doing it together,” Allen said. “And when you got all five guys on the same page and focused and in tune on (assistant) Tom Thibodeau’s defensive strategies, I think it makes it difficult for guys, superstars.”
The finals are tied after four games for the first time since 2006. Of the 25 series that were tied 2-all, the winner of Game 5 won 19 of them.
A victory in Boston on Sunday gives the Lakers two chances to wrap it up at home, while a loss means Bryant is closer to going 0-2 against Boston in the finals. He said he couldn’t go down as the greatest Lakers player ever if he never beats the Celtics.
Bryant considers Jerry West to have that title. Yet he never beat the Celtics either, whereas Magic Johnson did it twice.
“What is everybody’s fascination with the Celtics in terms of going down in history?” Bryant said. “It’s a little weird to me.”
With Bynum’s injury, and Ron Artest and Lamar Odom’s inconsistency, the Lakers have had to play Bryant and Gasol major minutes. The burden is heavier on Bryant, who has battled injuries throughout the second half of the season, and it’s likely the reason for his fourth-quarter struggles.
The Celtics are the older team but seem fresher, since a more productive bench has allowed their starters to get some rest during the series. Jackson would like to give Bryant the same opportunity.
“I’ve got to find a little space and time for him to give him some rest in that situation so he can come back with renewed energy,” Jackson said. “But after he’s played 30-plus minutes, to have that kind of energy to finish a game out is important to us, and we’ve got to get that back.”
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