LOS ANGELES — Just a few seconds after seldom-used Boston reserve Shelden Williams missed an uncontested dunk, Kobe Bryant floated to the rim and somehow willed a layup through tight defence to put the Lakers ahead by 22 points.
It was only the second quarter, but Game 6 was pretty much over. Los Angeles had responded to the threat of elimination from the NBA finals with the closest thing to a shutout anyone is likely to see in big-time basketball.
Buckle up, Boston and L.A. This epic series between old rivals is going to Game 7.
Bryant scored 26 points, Pau Gasol added 17 points and 13 rebounds, and the Lakers emphatically earned a grand finale with a 89-67 victory over the Celtics on Tuesday night.
Ron Artest added 15 points for the Lakers, who got their backs off the wall with a dazzling first half. Although the offence was sharp, the Lakers mostly did it with defence, limiting Boston to the second lowest-scoring performance in NBA finals history. Only Utah’s infamous 54-point performance against Chicago in 1998 was worse.
“I was very happy,” Bryant said after the defending champions stretched the finals to the limit for the first time since 2005. “We did a great job defensively. We kept them out of the middle, kept them out of the paint, did a good job on the boards. It was a solid effort by us.”
A champion will be crowned Thursday night at Staples Center.
Bryant grabbed 11 rebounds, and Gasol led the Lakers with nine assists in a remarkable bounce-back game for Los Angeles, which dominated from the opening minutes by vacuuming up rebounds — 13 more than Boston — and playing relentless defence that limited the Celtics to 33 per cent shooting. Two years after the Celtics ended the finals with a 39-point blowout of the Lakers in Game 6, Los Angeles turned this Game 6 into a long nightmare for Boston.
“Our defence was good, our rebounding was better,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
“It’s really a high-tension situation,” added Jackson, a 10-time champion who has never coached a Game 7 in the finals. “Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. It’s not about the coaching at that point. They’ve already got it in them. It’s about who comes out and provides the energy on the floor.”
Ray Allen scored 19 points for the Celtics, who took an ugly pratfall on the verge of winning their unprecedented 18th title. It turns out their longtime rivals are still quite serious about earning their 16th championship.
“We didn’t get in any rhythm early, and it affects our chemistry,” said Allen, whose two three-pointers were his first since hitting a finals-record eight in Game 2. “We each tried to make the home run play early. As a starting unit, we take responsibility. We have to do a better job next game.”
These rivals have played a Game 7 four times in their 11 previous finals meetings, with Boston winning all four. But it hasn’t happened since 1984 — and it hasn’t happened to Bryant, who looks determined to stake his claim among the NBA’s greats in pursuit of his fifth championship.
“We’re used to being in must-win situations,” Bryant said. “The way we look at it, (Game 7) is just a game we’ve got to win. ... I don’t mean to be a buzzkill. I know what’s at stake, but I’m not tripping.”
Bryant was a one-man band for much of the Lakers’ three-game stay in Boston, but Los Angeles was a symphony in Game 6. Gasol was a constant low-post presence and playmaker after disappearing for long stretches of the series, while Artest harnessed his wildly inconsistent jumper and hit three three-pointers.
“We want to carry everything we did tonight to (Game 7), and then I think we’ll be in a very good place to win,” Gasol said. “When you bring the intensity we did tonight, good things are going to happen.”
With U.S. first lady Michelle Obama watching from a luxury box, the Lakers were on their best behaviour — and the Celtics responded terribly to the chance to clinch a title.
Paul Pierce scored 13 points and Kevin Garnett added 12, but the Celtics’ offence was a jumbled, stand-around mess. Rajon Rondo, the late-game hero in Boston’s last appearance in Los Angeles, got off to a 1-for-8 shooting start before finishing with 10 points and six assists.
“I thought we’d play better, obviously,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we were ready. ... We played an individual game tonight on both ends. We never gave ourselves an opportunity offensively, because we never trusted each other. Everybody was out to make their own place.”
After earning the NBA’s second-best road record during the regular season, the Celtics must win on the road again to avoid becoming just the third team to blow a 3-2 series lead in the 2-3-2 finals format.
The Celtics lost starting centre Kendrick Perkins in the first quarter to a sprained right knee when he landed awkwardly under the hoop, but his absence couldn’t explain the Lakers’ utter domination of the first half — a 30-13 rebounding edge while holding Boston to 34 per cent shooting and frustrating Rondo.
“To me, the game is over,” Rondo said. “We have one game (left). They have one game. All or nothing. (Game 6) is in the past.”
There hasn’t been a winner-take-all finals game since San Antonio finished off Detroit five years ago, and Thursday’s Game 7 will be the 17th in NBA history. The Spurs’ victory over the Pistons was the first Game 7 since 1994, when the Houston Rockets capped a comeback with two home victories over the New York Knicks and their point guard — Rivers.
The Celtics were on the verge of finishing off the Lakers after winning three of the last four games, including Game 2 in Los Angeles and the last two back in Boston. With their fluid offence purring and their sturdy defence holding the Lakers to meagre scoring totals, the Celtics needed just one win in the final two games to clinch another title.
But facing their first series deficit and elimination game of the post-season, the Lakers kept their championship cool. The Lakers improved to 10-1 in the post-season at Staples Center, using the homecourt advantage they earned by finishing ahead of the Celtics, the East’s fourth-place team before their remarkable playoff run.
The Celtics dropped to 3-4 in closeout playoff games this season, including 0-3 on the road. Boston had nine chances to finish a playoff series away from home in the past three post-seasons, but has been successful only once.
Los Angeles’ 49-27 lead in the second quarter was the biggest for either team in the series. Even after going 31/2 minutes without a point shortly before halftime, the Lakers led 51-31 at the break before stretching the lead to 25 points in the third quarter and 27 in the fourth.
NOTES: Los Angeles got two points and four rebounds in 16 minutes from injured C Andrew Bynum, who spent part of the second half in the locker room. Jackson said Bynum asked to come out after feeling tightness in his leg, which will require surgery in the off-season ... Fans near courtside included anthem singer Christina Aguilera, Josh Brolin, Diane Lane, Lenny Kravitz, and Snoop Dogg sitting alongside Diddy. Dane Cook and Maria Menounos were among the Massachusetts transplants decked out in Celtics regalia, while director Eli Roth wore a Red Sox shirt.