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Odds still easily favor Celtics

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LOS ANGELES — Wheezing. Gasping. Erratic. Underwhelming.

And those were the winners.

The Lakers squeezed out a 103-98 victory over the limping Celtics on Sunday night at Staples Center, extending this best-of-seven NBA Finals to a sixth game in Boston. But as they say in showbiz, "That’s a wrap."

Unless Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett break their ankles on the flight back to Beantown, there is little to suggest the Lakers will become the first team to recover from a 3-1 series deficit, and in the process, enable Phil Jackson to nudge Red Auerbach aside for career coaching titles. As of right now, the odds easily favor the Celtics.

Hmmmm.

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Can we say that without inciting conspiracy theorists?

On a night the Celtics played without their starting center (Kendrick Perkins) and received limited minutes from their gimpy point guard (Rajon Rondo), two things had to occur for the Lakers to ultimately prevail: Kevin Garnett had to miss two free throws which he did and Kobe Bryant had to emerge from his offensive funk just long enough to poke the ball from Pierce and streak downcourt for a crucial two-handed dunk in the final seconds.

No, the Lakers can’t feel good about this. Phil and Kobe. Jack and Dyan and Denzel. None of them.

"We’re young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this," Jackson had said before the game, referring to his club’s daunting historical challenge.

Maybe what he meant to say was that his players were young enough and dumb enough to blow massive leads in consecutive games, disintegrate after another strong opening quarter, and squander most of the mental edge normally bestowed upon the home team by the home team arena.

Nineteen points. The Lakers led by 19 points, received terrific performances from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and yet suffered from mental lapses and defensive breakdowns that were confounding no, stunning for a club needing a victory to prolong their postseason. Loose balls. Long rebounds. An inordinate number of open-path opportunities to the basket. Advantage, Celtics.

"They’re going to throw the whole kitchen sink at me," said Bryant, after being harassed into an 8-for-21 outing. "Could I force myself to get 40? Yeah. But is that better for our ballclub? No. (When) we’ve got guys open, I’m going to move the ball and do what I need to do. It was important for me to step back and bring the other guys along, as opposed to staying hot or continuing to go with it. That’s what’s been successful for us.

"The important thing for me is to push the buttons at the right time. That’s the key ... That’s really become my role now moreso than in the past."

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Perhaps, but given the inevitable comparisons, you still have to ask: What would Michael Jordan do? Would he "trust" his teammates or demand the ball in the closing sequence?

The debate is ongoing, and sure to persist. But Jordan absolutely would have done what Bryant did to Pierce with just under a minute remaining: Sneak up behind. Reach out and poke the ball loose. Gather after an outlet pass (by Odom), and punctuate the play with a ferocious dunk.

"We needed that because we needed an easy hoop," added Bryant. "Paul (Pierce) is such a big body, and he protects the ball extremely well. As soon as I noticed that the ball was exposed a little bit, it was important for me to go after it."

True, but also true: The Celtics are too stingy defensively to blow their opportunities back in Boston.

It was nice while it lasted, this theory that the Lakers were the better team. But it’s not true. It’s just not true.

Aileen Voisin writes for the Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Her column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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