Basketball Bryant Got Some Help From His Friends


Bench Warmer
LOS ANGELES -- Game 5 wasn't about the big three. This time the story belonged to a group we'll call the maligned three: Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and the Staples Center crowd.

The game called for aggression, mental tenacity and a true home-court advantage, areas in which the Lakers have been lacking all week. This time the Lakers weren't left flailing and falling down. They pushed back, pushed harder and thus they prevailed.

At times it felt like a hockey game, when the puck stays at one end of the ice for a while for two, three shots at the goal, and the defense just has to hang in there and withstand it. There would be two, three cracks at it and it didn't always yield results. That's what happens when every shot is contested, not conceded.

The Lakers defeated the Celtics 103-98 -- the most points L.A. has scored in the Finals -- but this wasn't thought of as an offensive outbreak. All people could talk about was the gritty stuff.

"We didn't play our best game, but we played our hearts out," Gasol said. "We played really hard, and I'm proud of our team tonight."

"We were aggressive," Phil Jackson said. "We played hard. Not smart all the time, but we played hard."

No, it wasn't wise to let a 19-point lead evaporate with the memories of that historic 24-point collapse still rattling around the psyches in Lakerland. And Jackson's decision to go with a lineup that included the forgotten Chris Mihm at the start of the second quarter doesn't fit into the intelligent category, either. It was almost as inexplicable as the league sending out **** Bavetta to officiate the game after two former officials said they were asked about him by feds investigating the fraud claims of Tim Donaghy. Why remind people of the week's other huge NBA story, or leave yourself open to more conspiracy claims that the officiating assignments are designed to produce the longest, most lucrative series? It's a tight call as to whether it was more ignorant or arrogant on the league's part.

Back to basketball. Back to the 19 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists from Gasol, and 20 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists from Odom. Two big numbers that meant more than the team-high 25 points from Kobe Bryant. Since the Celtics have already determined that Bryant won't beat them single-handedly, the production has to come from elsewhere.

So the Lakers had five scorers in double figures. Notably, Odom and Gasol were among them. Neither reached double digits in Game 3, which the Lakers managed to win anyway, and each had single-digit rebound games, as well -- unacceptable in a category that's so crucial to this series. This is tough for the Lakers because it's not in the team's nature to be physical.

In the third quarter Gasol scored on a layup and got fouled, and as he stepped to the line he tried pumping his arms to get his teammates going. But he looked like an orchestra conductor trying to get more oomph from his string section.

Odom always has trouble playing well night-in and night-out. Just when you're ready to believe in him, he disappears; just when you're ready to write him off, he comes through the way he did in Game 5.

"Lamar's very resilient," Jackson said. "He showed that tonight."

"I tried to stay focused throughout the game," Odom said. "I thought last game that I played, I thought I didn't make enough plays down in the fourth quarter. I just wanted to stay focused, make plays throughout the game."

He scored nine points in the second quarter and kept the game from completely escaping the Lakers' grasp when Paul Pierce was going to the hoop at every Laker that stepped to him and what was a 19-point lead dwindled to three. Gasol came through with eight points in the third. The Lakers needed someone to make up for a stretch of 30-plus minutes when Bryant had only five points.

"You know you're not going to shoot the ball too well against this team because they're going to throw everybody at you," said Bryant, who shot 8-for-21. "But the important thing for me is to push the buttons at the right time."

He kept going to Gasol. The Celtics were missing the injured Kendrick Perkins, and Kevin Garnett was saddled with foul trouble. Give some of that credit to Jackson's insistence. One time Bryant looked to Jackson for an inbounds play, didn't seem to like what he saw, but dutifully went to Gasol anyway.

Whether Gasol, Odom and the likes of Jordan Farmar can maintain this in Boston is still up for debate. But they gave themselves a chance to prove it.

The Lakers showed that they put the Game 4 gagging behind them by scoring 39 points in the first quarter. You wonder if the Celtics were already trying on their rings in their minds, with Garnett saying he could "taste" the championship and Inglewood native Pierce making statements such as "just to win it in your hometown is something that people will always remember years and years and years down the road. If we were playing someone else in the Finals, people may forget. But being that it's at home makes it more special, because it's something we're going to talk about for as long as I'm alive."

Cedric Maxwell, the former Celtics player turned radio broadcaster, was cackling before the game, saying "I hear the fat lady singing."

He should have taken into account where he was. You'd be hard-pressed to find a fat woman in Staples Center. For a change you could find -- and hear -- real fans. The Lakers crowd had taken criticism from far and near (including the L.A. Times) for its lack of passion, but that wasn't the case in Game 5.

During a timeout in the third quarter, with the Lakers' lead teetering at 65-64, a group of fans in section 215 stood up and started cheering, and the noise spread throughout the arena like a sonic wave. After the Lakers pushed the lead to seven points and forced a Boston timeout, the fans stood and chanted "Let's Go Lakers" instead of passively staring at the scoreboard race as they usually do.

They stood throughout the fourth quarter. And when Garnett went for a pair of free throws with 2:31 remaining, none other than Denzel Washington got up and waved his arms to elicit more noise from the crowd, and he looked satisfied when Garnett missed both.

As an added bonus, the fans get free tacos because of a fast-food restaurant promotion when the Lakers win and hold the opponent to less than 100 points. I've never understood why fans paying an average of $90 a ticket are so desperate to get hooked up with a 99-cent taco for free. But they pay for the seats. Sunday, they earned their food. Let them eat tacos. They'll need some food while they're watching Game 6.