TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer LOS ANGELES
Serenaded by a star-studded, Hollywood crowd with the customary and overdone "M-V-P, M-VP" chants, Kobe Bryant showed why he's unmatched. Through a sloppy game glutted with fouls, missed free throws, air balls, poor decisions and basketball unworthy of the NBA finals or the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Bryant stood alone. As always. The league's best player in the regular season, he's the class of the postseason, too. Bryant finally shook free from Boston's gang green of defenders to score 36 points, Sasha Vujacic added 20 and Los Angeles flirted with disaster before pulling out a must-win and beating Boston 87-81 on Tuesday night to close within 2-1 in a series that may be just getting started. Bryant, whose shot wouldn't drop in Games 1 and 2 at Boston, went 12-of-20 from the floor and overcame a horrid 11-of-18 night from the foul line, where he clanged the iron like former teammate Shaquille O'Neal. "I felt like I was in a foreign territory because I hadn't been there in so long," Bryant said of his 15-foot misfires. "It's like somebody just dropped me off in the middle of Shanghai with no translator and no dictionary. It was crazy. "At least I got there. So that's a positive." 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. Vujacic was the only other Los Angeles player to score in double figures, as he and Bryant combined for 64 percent of the Lakers' points on a night when Lamar Odon (4 points, 5 fouls) and Gasol (9 points on 3-of-9 shooting) couldn't be counted on. Lakers coach Phil Jackson may not always like Vujacic's shot selection, but he was glad the 24-year-old stepped up. "He's a little bit of a rockhead," Jackson said, smiling. "That's what we call him. He believes in himself very sincerely, that he's going to make the next one. And you have to be that way if you're going to have the guts to go out there and do it. Sasha is always going to make the next shot. That (last) one might have been off, but the next one is going in." Game 4 is Thursday night at 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. "We had our opportunites," Pierce said. "But we look at this going into Game 4 and say, 'Hey, we play like that, hold them to 87.' I think we have a great chance of beating them." The Celtics enjoyed a huge disparity from the line in Game 2, shooting 38 free throws to 10 for the Lakers. But the whistles were more 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. But Bryant calmed their twitching nerves quickly. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant, whose shot wouldn't drop in Boston, went 1-on-1 with Allen. He backed the Celtics guard down in the lane, faked him off his feet with an up-andunder move and dropped a short jumper to make it 87-81. Game over. Series revived. 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." This game won't be remembered as one of the better ones in the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but it did have a few moments of the physical nastiness that defined their matchups during the 1980s. "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." Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., where he learned to play in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum, the Lakers' former home where Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and "Showtime" had an extended run of championship seasons. But Pierce's finals homecoming was homely. The Celtics' star forward, who came in averaging 25 points in the series, went just 2-for-14 and missed all four 3-pointers.