NBA Finals: Clutch Win for Lakers in Game 3

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The Los Angeles Lakers — on their home court — racked up their first win against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals on Tuesday. The Celtics are still ahead in the best-of-seven series, with two victories.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were back in action last night for Game Three of the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the first two games in Boston. No team has ever come back from a three-to-nothing deficit, so the pressure was on the Lakers, who hoped coming back home would provide a needed spark. NPR's Tom Goldman picks up the story from Los Angeles.

TOM GOLDMAN: Home cooking. It's what sports teams say they look forward to after a tough road trip, and it doesn't just mean the comfort of familiar food. It's all the familiar, adoring fans as well, who live for their athletic heroes.

Of course, home cooking L.A.-style is always a bit dicey. Los Angeles sports fans are notoriously laid back. Lakers games often start with big chunks of empty seats at the team's home arena, Staples Center.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GOLDMAN: But not last night. A-listers like Jack Nicholson, of course, and Steven Spielberg joined the thousands of non-celestial Angelinos and bellowed their love, all of them believers. And why not? They have the best NBA player in Kobe Bryant and arguably the best coach, Phil Jackson, with nine championships to his name, a man known as the Zen master, who was reminded of that before the game.

Unidentified Man: Isn't this supposed to be your time to make adjustments and to show us some magic?

Mr. PHIL JACKSON (Coach, Los Angeles Lakers): Yeah, you're right.

Unidentified Man: Okay, so is it tonight? Does that start tonight?

Mr. JACKSON: I don't know. We'll see what happens.

Unidentified Man: And if it doesn't? If it doesn't, then can we come after you?

Mr. JACKSON: You can ask for a rebate.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Phil, your money's safe.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

GOLDMAN: Driving to the hoop, sinking outside jump shots, scoring early and then late with a flurry of baskets, Kobe Bryant finished with 36 points to lead the Lakers to an 87-81 win. It tightened up the best four-games-out-of-seven series. The Celtics now lead two to one.

But there was nothing tight about Bryant, who, with his teammates, faced a near-impossible task had they lost.

Mr. KOBE BRYANT (Basketball Player, Los Angeles Lakers): It's important that they understand that I'm not pressured. I'm not worried or anything like that. Because they feel for that. They feel for my confidence, and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win.

GOLDMAN: One player who gorged all night was Sasha Vujacic. The Lakers' reserve guard from Slovenia has Euro-dude long hair and a deadly outside shot, and both were flying. He scored 20 points off the bench, including a long-range three-point shot with just under two minutes in the game, which gave L.A. a five-point lead.

Mr. SASHA VUJACIC (Basketball Player, Los Angeles Lakers): Those are the shots I live for. You know, honestly, I love the last five minutes of the game, the last two minutes, the last possessions of the game. And my teammates, you know, did a great job. They double-teamed Kobe. Lamar got the ball, and he found me in the corner. You know, I was wide open.

GOLDMAN: It was a close, physical game with lots of fouls, but no complaints about referees' calls being uneven. The Lakers had groused about that after game two, when the Celtics shot many more foul shots than L.A.

Last night, it was the Lakers who had a lopsided advantage. Still, it was a day when the NBA found itself once again answering questions about suspect officiating. Court papers presented in the case of Tim Donaghy, the former ref who admitted last year he bet on games, revealed more damning allegations. Donaghy claims other referees rigged the outcome of a 2002 playoff series involving the Lakers, and he says the NBA asked refs to avoid calling fouls on star players.

NBA Commissioner David Stern accused Donaghy's lawyers of grandstanding during the NBA finals and repeated his belief that Donaghy was the only ref involved in illegal behavior. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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