In Game 4, it was the Boston reserves that helped even the NBA Finals, 2-2. On Sunday, it was the Celtics’ starters that put them just one win away from their second NBA championship in three seasons. Four Boston starters scored in double figures as the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 92-86 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Paul Pierce led Boston with 27 points and Kevin Garnett added 18 points, 10 rebounds and five steals to help push the Lakers to the brink of elimination. Now, the series shifts back to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Tuesday, June 15 and a possible Game 7 on Thursday, June 17.

With his starters struggling to find consistency throughout the series, Boston coach Doc Rivers told reporters on Saturday that he was expecting a strong game from all of his regulars and they answered those expectations Sunday night. It was the first time all series that the Celtics’ “Big Four” – Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Pierce and Garnett – all scored in double figures. Aside from an off shooting night from Allen, the “Big Four” played dominant at times, overshadowing a Herculean effort from Kobe Bryant. Bryant led all scorers with 38 points and scored 23 straight points for the Lakers between 4:23 left in the second quarter until 2:16 remaining in the third.

It was Bryant’s highest scoring total of the series so far. But, without much help from Bryant’s teammates, Boston was able to focus on the Lakers’ shooting guard in the final period, holding him to five points on 0-for-3 shooting over the last eight minutes of the game. Pau Gasol’s 12 points was the only other double figure scoring performance from a Lakers player as starters Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher struggled throughout the night. Bynum played 32 minutes despite aggravating a knee injury in Game 3, but his production was limited. Bynum scored six points in the first quarter but didn’t score another point throughout the game and finished with just one rebound.

Artest and Fisher combined for 16 points on 4-of-18 shooting, but it will be Artest who’ll receive the bulk of the blame for the loss. Since scoring 15 points in the Finals opener, Artest has averaged six points per game and shot 24 percent from the field, connecting on 8-of-33 field goals in his last four games. His defense on Pierce – or lack thereof – prompted Bryant to request an assignment change during a Lakers timeout midway through the third quarter but Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson declined.

The Celtics stretched their lead to 87-75 after Rondo’s tip in with 3:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers scored the next seven points to cut the lead to five after Bryant’s three free throws. Leading, 87-82, with 38 seconds remaining, Pierce heaved a pass down court to Rondo who finished the lay up and put Los Angeles away for good.

With their backs against the wall, the Lakers will attempt to avoid a third consecutive playoff loss for the first time since losing, 4-3, against the Phoenix Suns in the first round of 2005-2006 playoffs. After leading all players in scoring in Game 5, Bryant will be expecting a better performance from his teammates as his club tries to secure a consecutive title.

“Just man up and play. What the hell is the big deal?” Bryant told reporters. “If I have to say something to them, then we don’t deserve to be champions. We’re down, 3-2: Go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that.”


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO