TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer BOSTON
Banner No. 17 is halfway to the rafters. The Celtics are two wins from another NBA championship. And maybe a little lucky to be there. Paul Pierce, darting around the parquet floor with ease, scored 28 points, Boston's defense mobbed Kobe Bryant long enough and unknown Leon Powe scored 21 points as the Celtics held off a remarkable Los Angeles rally for a 108-102 win over the Lakers on Sunday night. The Celtics have a 2-0 lead in these trip-down-memory-lane NBA fi- nals. The Celtics had to work every second to get the win. The Lakers trailed by 24 with less than 8 minutes to go, but pulled to 104-102 on two free throws by Bryant with 38.4 seconds left. But Pierce made two free throws, then blocked a jumper by Sasha Vujacic, and James Posey made two free throws with 12.6 seconds left to ice it for Boston. "I think we got kind of complacent with the lead," Pierce said. "We weren't staying aggressive. We let them pick up their pressure. We stopped guarding. We got to take a lesson from this fourth quarter to keep playing regardless of the score and finish the game." Boston was 27-for-38 from the line, while the Lakers were 10-for-10. Pierce wasn't slowed by a sprained right knee suffered in the series opener, when he was carried from the court and plopped into a wheelchair. The Boston captain paced the Celtics, who are back in the finals for the first since 1987, when Larry Bird was the main man and gasoline cost 91 cents per gallon. As usual, Boston's Big Three Pierce, Ray Allen (17 points) and Kevin Garnett (17) were the ringleaders but Powe, a second-year reserve had the game of his career, adding his 21 points in 15 minutes that may make him a Celtics fan-favorite for life. Powe, who played a total of 68 seconds during one stretch of 13 games during the season, scored six points to close a 15-2 run ending the third quarter that gave the Celtics a 22-point lead, a burst had the Lakers California dreaming. At one point in the fourth quarter, Boston fans discarded the familiar chants of "Beat L.A." for cries of "Leon Powe!" Rajon Rondo had 16 assists and Garnett added 14 rebounds for the Celtics. Game 3 is Tuesday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are 8-0 in the postseason and have won 14 in a row at home since March 28. Bryant had better hope the rims there are a little kinder than the ones in TD Banknorth Garden. "We knew we had to get this win this was a big win going out West," Pierce said. "Our mind-set is to get Game 3 and try take away their confidence and win this series in L.A.. We knew it was going to be tough, but nobody said it was going to be easy." Bryant, who pledged to bounce back from a sub-par Game 1, scored 30 points 13 in the fourth on 11-of-23 shooting. In four losses to Boston this season, Bryant is just 35-of-93 from the field and can't seem to get the same easy looks he enjoys against every other team. Pau Gasol had 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who were down 95-71 with 7:55 when they mounted a comeback that fell just short. Bryant's 3-pointer made it 102-91 and then the self-proclaimed "Black Mamba" slithered down the lane for two quick baskets that got the Lakers, who scored 41 points in the final 12 minutes, within 104-95. The Celtics, meanwhile, began to stand around on offense, thinking the game was in hand. It was anything but. After Vujacic hit a 3-pointer, Vladimir Radmanovic made a steal and dunk to make it 104-100 and Celtics fans, who had been dancing moments earlier, began to panic. None of Boston's players seemed to want the ball as it moved around like a hot potato before Rondo missed a jumper with 44 seconds left. Bryant's free throws brought Los Angeles to 104-102 before Pierce slashed down the lane and got fouled by Derek Fisher. As a few of his teammates locked arms on the bench like a college team trying to advance in March, Pierce knocked down both foul shots. Then, on defense, he got just enough of Vujacic's shot from the left wing with 14 seconds left. Posey was fouled on the play and calmly made his two free throws. The Lakers rushed the ball down but missed on a couple jumpers, and when the fi- nal horn sounded, a collective sigh of relief rushed through the exits as the Celtics and their fans left the building confident, if not shaken. Called "unstoppable" by Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Bryant got off to another slow start. He missed his first two shots, one an uncontested layup underneath and was unable to get the looks he wanted as the Celtics followed the MVP around like a pack of hungry wolves on the hunt. Bryant was just 1-of-4 from the floor when he was called for pushing off on Allen his second personal foul and spent the final 1:59 of the opening period a few seats away from Jackson. Soon, Bryant was joined by Lamar Odom and Jackson was forced to give his reserves extended early minutes. They weren't good ones. The Lakers' heralded bench bunch struggled, and the Celtics took advantage. Trailing by two after one, Boston opened the second quarter with a 10-0 run, capped by Pierce's 3-pointer. As bad as Los Angeles was playing, the Lakers hung around and closed within 41-37 on Gasol's three-point play. But Pierce knocked down another 3, Allen followed with one of his own and the Celtics closed the half with a 13-5 burst to open a 54-42 halftime lead.