Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lakers defeat Celtics 87-81 behind Bryant's 36 points

On his floor and on his game, Kobe Bryant revived the Los Angeles Lakers - and the NBA finals.
Bryant scored 36 points with an MVP-worthy performance, Sasha Vujacic added 20 points and the Lakers, teetering on the brink of falling into an almost impossible hole in the NBA finals, beat the Boston Celtics 87-81 in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
"What I tried to do with my teammates is just stay calm," Bryant said. "It wasn't the end of the world. They did a great job of defending home court. We knew we had to come here and do the same. They feed off of my confidence and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win."
A change of time zones, jerseys and attitude did wonders for the Lakers, who staggered home from Boston in an 0-2 hole and couldn't afford to fall any further behind.
No team in NBA playoff history has overcome a 3-0 deficit.
Bryant made sure the Lakers won't have to.
And this time, he got some help.
Vujacic, the self-proclaimed "Machine," made three three-pointers, including a crucial one from the left corner with 1:53 left that gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead. Pau Gasol finally flexed his muscles with two inside baskets in the fourth quarter and Derek Fisher made two free throws with 1:33 remaining as the Lakers held on.
"We just wanted to play," said Bryant, whose only flaw was an 11-of-18 night from the foul line. "I don't think anyone was feeling desperate."
Game 4 is Thursday night at Staples Center, where the Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs and unbeaten in 15 games since March 28.
But it took everything they had to keep that streak alive as the Celtics, two wins from their 17th NBA title but 2-8 on the road in this postseason, made the Lakers play a more physical, Eastern Conference-style game and nearly walked away with a win.
Ray Allen scored 25 points - 15 on three-pointers - for the Celtics, but only one-third of Boston's Big Three showed up.
Kevin Garnett scored 13 points on 6-of-21 shooting, and Paul Pierce was 2 of 14 for six points and limited to 32 minutes because of foul trouble.
"As bad as we played, we still had opportunities," Allen said. "That's the positive. But I don't think on either side of the floor we were good. We had so much more room for improvement."
The Celtics enjoyed a huge disparity from the line in Game 2, shooting 38 free throws to 10 for the Lakers.
But the whistles were more well-balanced as Los Angeles took 34 free throws to Boston's 22.
After Garnett's dunk brought the Celtics to within 83-78 with 1:28 to go, Bryant made sure he took L.A.'s next shot. He drove on Allen to get some space, pulled up and drilled the kind of jumper he has practiced thousands of times.
Eddie House, who gave Boston big minutes when Rajon Rondo went out with a sprained left ankle, countered with a three-pointer, and suddenly the Lakers crowd grew uneasy.
But Bryant calmed the fans' twitching nerves quickly.
On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant, whose shot wouldn't drop in Boston, backed down in the lane and dropped in a short jumper to make it 87-81.
Los Angeles Coach Phil Jackson knew whom to credit for the win.
"I think undoubtedly it's the leadership of Kobe Bryant," he said. "He was aggressive right from the start, put the defense on its heels."
Los Angeles is trying to become the fourth team to come back from a 2-0 deficit, and with two more games at home, the Lakers have a chance to turn this renewed rivalry around.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers figured Bryant would take over the series at some point, but he didn't expect Vujacic, who scored a combined 16 points in Games 1 and 2, to be such a factor.
"Kobe was fantastic, but I thought Vujacic was the key to the game," he said. "I said before we are going to have to win a game when Kobe Bryant plays well. We know that. But when that happens, we have to shut off the other avenues."
This game won't be remembered as one of the better ones in the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but it did have a few moments of the physical nastiness that defined their matchups during the 1980s.
"It was not a beautiful ballgame," Jackson said. "That's a transition game from East Coast to West Coast. But we'll have a day to catch up tomorrow and hopefully both of us will play better basketball on Thursday night."

Smith, Saints agree on six-year, $70 million extension
New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith has signed a contract extension that will make him one of the NFL's highest-paid defensive players.
Smith is guaranteed $26 million with his new six-year, $70 million contract, a source told's Len Pasquarelli.
The deal makes Smith the NFL's third highest-paid defensive end, behind Minnesota's Jared Allen and Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney.
Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and his seven sacks in 2007 led the Saints. He also was among team leaders in tackles with 66.
"We are excited about getting this long-term contract done with Will," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. "We view him as one of our core players and look forward to him having an impact on our defense for years to come."
Smith, who received about $20 million in bonuses when signed as a first-round draft choice out of Ohio State in 2004, was expected to earn between $1.8 million and $3 million next season, depending on performance incentives.
Smith had been dissatisfied with his contract -- which paled in comparison to the league's top defensive ends. Freeney is paid close to $12 million a year.
Last year, the Saints signed defensive end Charles Grant to a seven-year contract extension worth as much as $63 million if he reaches all incentives.
Smith has arguably outperformed Grant in recent years. He had 26 sacks over the past three seasons, compared to 11 for Grant.
"The Saints really stepped up," said Smith's agent, Joel Segal. "It was a long negotiation and a great deal for both Will and the Saints."
Smith skipped much of the Saints' offseason training program because of unhappiness with his contract, but participated in a mandatory minicamp and remained in New Orleans afterward. He also worked out with the team during its final two weeks of organized team activities, which are voluntary.
"He'll be able to show up for training camp now with nothing on his mind but getting ready for the season and the Super Bowl," Segal said.

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