LOS ANGELES - Half of Hollywood was sitting at courtside, and the stage was set. The Celtics were in position to take a 3-0 series lead in the NBA Finals and put the Lakers underwater.
It didn't happen. Kobe Bryant and friends retaliated and put themselves back into championship contention with an 87-81 win over the Celtics last night in the third game of the series.
The Celtics led, 68-66, with less than eight minutes to play, but they fizzled down the stretch and now find themselves in a tight series. Boston earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with 66 regular-season wins, and it's looking like the Friendly Gym Factor might yet be the tipping point in this year's tournament. The ancient rivals return to the Staples Center for Game 4 tomorrow night.
The walls were closing in on Bryant in Game 3. Anointed by many as the heir to Michael Jordan's throne, expected to carry the Lakers to a championship, he struggled mightily in the first two games in Boston. His team was about to dissolve at home and he was getting ripped in Curt Schilling's blog (based on his one-game observations, Schill told the world that Bryant yells at his teammates). Talk about your low moments.
Bryant responded with 36 points (12-for-20 shooting), including a couple of crucial isolation baskets in the final 70 seconds. Kobe got long-range help from Slovenian Sasha Vujacic (20 points on 7-of-10 shooting).
"I just tried to stay calm," said Bryant. "I'm not pressing and I'm not worried or anything like that. I have all the confidence in the world. I just play. I just do what I've learned to do throughout the years."
Asked to cite the reason for victory, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "It was the leadership of Kobe Bryant. We stayed aggressive out there and Kobe was very instrumental in that."
Bryant's 3-pointer put the Lakers ahead for keeps with 6:55 left. In the closing seconds he canned a 19-foot jumper and an 11-foot floater in the lane to keep the home team on top.
"It's my responsibility to put the ball in the hole," said Bryant. "We've got to figure out how to win ballgames when we don't shoot particularly well."
"Give them credit," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I thought they were the more aggressive team all night. Our defense was pretty good. Our offense was not. We had a chance to steal a game here when our guys were off."
Paul Pierce, who scored 50 points in the two wins in Boston, converted only 2 of 14 shots, scoring 6 points. Kevin Garnett scored 13 points, but he hit only 6 of 21 shots. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 25 points.
"It was not a beautiful ballgame," said Jackson. "That's a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. There should have been a day off, probably, between the transition between coasts."
There was no shortage of pregame pageantry. "American Idol" winner David Cook performed the national anthem. Bill Walton stretched out his 7-foot frame in a folding chair behind the baseline and Jack Nicholson took his customary seat between the benches. Hugh Hefner (no smoking jacket) and his inflatable friends were on the scene, as were Eddie Murphy, Steven Spielberg, Kristin Davis, and Sylvester Stallone.
Los Angeles star power being what it is (how often do you hear "Down in front!" when the offender turns out to be Dustin Hoffman?), the Lakers have no need for indoor fireworks.
It was a night to watch the referees. Jackson complained loudly about the free throw disparity after Game 2 and yesterday it came out that indicted official Tim Donaghy claimed the 2002 playoffs were fixed. It was not the ideal backdrop for the visitors, who were 9 1/2-point underdogs.
The Lakers took 34 free throws to Boston's 22 last night, but Joe Crawford, Bennett Salvatore, and Mark Wunderlich ultimately were not the deciding factor.
"They played harder, they attacked the basket, and they deserved to go to the foul line," said Rivers.
Told that Jackson said Garnett looked tired, Rivers quipped, "I'm just surprised he didn't whine about fouls tonight."
The Celtics missed 8 of their first 9 shots and fell behind, 9-2. Despite zero first-quarter points from Garnett and Pierce, the Celtics finished the period in a 20-20 tie. LA led, 43-37, at intermission.
Boston's scoring woes continued early in the third, but the Green stayed in the game. Late in the quarter, Garnett completed a 10-2 run with a jumper from the left baseline to put Boston ahead, 51-49. The Celtics led by as many as 5 and finished the quarter with a 62-60 lead.
The Celtics looked like they might take command early in the fourth, but Bryant and Vujacic had other thoughts. Left alone, Vujacic made the Celtics pay.
"We definitely had opportunities," said Allen. "As bad as we played, we still had opportunities. I think it was all energy tonight and our energy wasn't right."
"We were fighting and we didn't want to give up and we got the W," said Vujacic. "This is the NBA Finals and I dreamed about it my whole life."
It is the Finals. It is in the land where dreams come true. And Kobe Bryant is standing in the way of Boston winning banner No. 17.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.