LOS ANGELES // The trophy, the hats, the T-shirts, everything was in place in Los Angeles for the Boston Celtics to wrap up their 18th NBA championship. And then the Lakers shoved everything back in their boxes and sent all the Celtics in sight back to their hotels for two more days.
With an emphatic, historic blowout 89-67 triumph in Game 6 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles earned the right to host the grand finale to both the NBA season and this scintillating chapter in the league's most glamorous rivalry. Kobe Bryant scored 26 points, Pau Gasol added 17 points, and the Lakers held Boston to the second lowest-scoring performance in NBA finals history in an 89-67 victory, setting up a winner-takes-all Game 7 tonight.
Faced with elimination for the first time in this post-season, the defending champions did not flinch and showed just what they are made of. Just look at Bryant, who still has not cracked a smile during the quest for his fifth title - the same number as Magic Johnson, and one behind Michael Jordan. "We're used to being in must-win situations," Bryant said. "The way we look at it, [Game 7] is just a game we've got to win.
"I don't mean to be a buzzkill. I know what's at stake." He left that to the Celtics, who fell all over themselves after falling behind by 22 points in the first half. Boston memorably eliminated the Lakers in the sixth game of the 2008 finals with a 39-point blowout - but this time around, the Celtics lost their series lead and their starting centre in one disastrous Game 6. "We didn't get in any rhythm early, and it affects our chemistry," said Ray Allen, who scored 19 points.
"We each tried to make the home run play early. As a starting unit, we take responsibility. We have to do a better job next game." Ron Artest added 15 points for the Lakers, who got their backs off the wall with a dazzling first half display and a strong finish built around defence that held Boston to just a paltry 33 per cent shooting. Only Utah's infamous 54-point performance against Chicago in 1998 provides a worse statistic than that.
Bryant grabbed 11 rebounds, and Gasol led the Lakers with nine assists in a remarkable bounce-back game for Los Angeles, who dominated from the opening minutes by sweeping up rebounds ? 13 more than Boston ? and playing relentless defence to keep the pressure on their opponents. "I was very happy," Bryant said after the defending champions stretched the finals to the limit for the first time since 2005.
"We did a great job defensively. We kept them out of the middle, kept them out of the paint, did a good job on the boards. It was a solid effort by us." These rivals have played a Game 7 four times in their 11 previous finals meetings, with Boston winning all four. But it has not happened since 1984 - and it has not happened to Bryant, who looks determined to stake a spot among the NBA's circle of greats.
But while Bryant was a one-man band for much of the Lakers' three-game stay in Boston, Los Angeles was a symphony back on home turf Gasol was a constant low-post presence and playmaker after disappearing for long stretches of the series, while Artest harnessed his wildly inconsistent jumper and hit three three-pointers to cap a great personal day at the office. "We want to carry everything we did tonight to [Game 7], and then I think we'll be in a very good place to win," Gasol said.
"When you bring the intensity we did tonight, good things are going to happen." With First Lady Michelle Obama watching from a luxury box, the Lakers were on their best behaviour - and the Celtics responded terribly to the chance to clinch a title. Paul Pierce scored 13 points and Kevin Garnett added 12, but the Celtics' offence was a jumbled, stand-around mess that never got going. Rajon Rondo, the late-game hero in Boston's last appearance in Los Angeles, got off to a one-for-eight shooting start before finishing with 10 points and six assists to sum up a below par day.
"I thought we'd play better, obviously," Doc Rivers, the Boston coach, said. "I thought we were ready. "We played an individual game tonight on both ends. We never gave ourselves an opportunity offensively, because we never trusted each other. "Everybody was out to make their own place." The Celtics lost Kendrick Perkins, their starting centre, in the first quarter to a sprained knee when he landed awkwardly under the hoop, but his absence could not explain the Lakers' utter domination of the first half - a 30-13 rebounding edge while holding Boston to 34 per cent shooting and frustrating Rondo.
"To me, the game is over," Rondo said. "We have one game. They have one game. All or nothing. [Game 6] is in the past." Perkins is questionable for tonight's game. There has not been a winner-takes-all finals game since San Antonio finished off Detroit five years ago, and tonight's Game 7 will be the 17th in NBA history. The Spurs' victory over the Pistons was the first Game 7 since 1994, when the Houston Rockets capped a comeback with two home wins over the New York Knicks and their point guard - Rivers.
"It's really a high-tension situation," said Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach and a 10-time champion who has never coached a Game 7 in the finals. "Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. It's not about the coaching at that point. They've already got it in them. It's about who comes out and provides the energy on the floor." * AP