- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant hadn't even made it off the floor yet when he got hit with the only question that really matters at the moment in these NBA Finals.
Tell us, Kobe: Did we see enough from the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 to believe they can win a Game 6 -- then a Game 7 -- in the city this franchise dreads more than any other?
"Probably not," Bryant told ABC's Michele Tafoya in the customary postgame quickie assessment.
He's probably right, too.
The Lakers have indeed dragged this series back to the unfriendly streets of Boston with Sunday's 103-98 triumph, saving their season by finally winning a Finals third quarter and savoring their first dose of dependable play from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom on the same night.
"I know I didn't want to see the Celtics celebrating [on] my home floor with champagne and all that crap," Gasol said. "I definitely didn't want to see that."
The Lakers wasted every drop of another big lead, this time an early cushion of 19 points.
The Lakers then surrendered another 14-point lead in the fourth quarter to fall into a 90-90 tie, even with the Celtics essentially playing without two starters (Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo) and with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett plagued by foul trouble.
Kobe eventually rescued the Lakers with a reach from behind in the final minute that knocked the ball away from Pierce, leading to a game-turning breakaway dunk at the other end. But Bryant was the first to acknowledge that the Lakers aren't likely to win on the road if this showing, as Jack Nicholson might say, is as good as it gets.
Any hope his team has of becoming the first in Finals history to rise out of a 3-1 hole and actually win the championship stems more from the Celtics' growing health and freshness issues than any real encouragement from the Lakers' performance. Unless they look a lot sharper in Game 6.
Can Gasol and Odom conceivably play well on the same night in raucous TD Banknorth Garden? Has L.A. at last reversed the trend that resulted in a 116-73 scoring edge for the Celtics in the first four third quarters of the Rivalry Revisited? Will the complementary Lakers shoot the ball well enough in Boston to loosen up the unrelenting defensive swarms Kobe keeps seeing?
Or do the Celtics' issues -- you can add bad starts to the list -- have to keep growing to give the Lakers some real life?
Fact is, Bryant managed only 10 points (on 3-for-13 shooting) in the final three quarters, with 12 of his 25 coming on a first-quarter barrage of four 3-pointers.
Fact is, L.A. doesn't pull out this victory if Garnett (13 points and 14 boards in just 33 foul-laden minutes) doesn't pick up two fouls on ill-advised reaches of his own, clank three fourth-quarter free throws and miss a seemingly certain late tip-in, too.
Fact is, Kobe's Lakers have to be banking on the idea that the coast-to-coast travel and short turnaround before Tuesday's Game 6 affects Pierce more than anyone else, after the homecoming Inglewood legend logged 47 minutes and 58 seconds of court time and delivered 38 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds in his bid to make this a parade clincher.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson made the humorous pregame claim that his team is "young enough and dumb enough" to get past its Game 4 choke job and recover from the 24-point lead it couldn't hold Thursday night to somehow bounce back and complete what would establish a new standard for comebacks on the game's grandest stage. But the struggles they had with the short-handed, banged-up squad available to Boston coach Doc Rivers suggest that the Lakers will be relying on the Celtics' problems as much as anything to keep this going.
Pierce gave his suspect knee just two seconds of rest in Game 5 in an attempt to finish off the mentally wounded Lakers. Starting center Perkins didn't even dress for Game 5 thanks to his latest shoulder setback and was listed by Rivers as "doubtful" for Game 6. Rondo is still playing on a bad ankle and managed to earn only 14-plus minutes of playing time and Garnett has to recover from a few free-throw misses he admits will "haunt me" a little bit.
The Celtics also announced afterward that Ray Allen had to leave L.A. immediately after the defeat to return to Boston because of a "health issue" with one of his children.
Pierce insisted: "I have plenty in the tank. It's not over. I've got to suck it up for two more games, if that. It'll all be worth it in the end."
Said Rivers: "It's a terrible turnaround. Nothing you can do about it. They leave [on a flight Monday] at 10, and we leave at 11. It's a tough one. It's as tough as you can have.
"But both teams have the same issue. So it could come down to a game of mental toughness, who fights the fatigue mentally better than the other group."
The good news for L.A.: Gasol (19 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists) and Odom (20 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks) at least have the chance to prove they can win that kind of game on the road after Rivers publicly conceded that the Lakers were Game 5's "more physical team."
The bad news for L.A.: Boston has been the tougher team so far -- by far -- and showed more grit here than Rivers was willing to acknowledge publicly. The Celtics wiped out those two big deficits with that skeleton crew and refused to allow Kobe & Co. any comfort in the game that should have been the easiest for them to win, hanging around all the way until the final few ticks after Eddie House heaved in one last triple with 14.3 seconds to go.
The Lakers' big failing, maybe even bigger than the Game 4 collapse, was not winning one of those first two games up there. Which means they have to win Game 6 before the Celts are going to start feeling any real doubt or pressure.
My suspicion? Although Boston did just suffer its ninth road loss of this postseason for an unwanted league record -- and even though Garnett admitted that "the onus is on us" -- I'd expect a pretty angry pack of Celts on Tuesday night. A team steamed and primed to close L.A. out after Sunday's two big rallies weren't enough to do so in the final game at Staples until next season.
"It still feels like we have the advantage in the series," Pierce said, "and I do feel like we're the better team."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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