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Lakers, Celtics hope to play better in Game Four

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

By TOM WITHERS

AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Maybe the NBA finals should book an appointment with one of Southern California's finest plastic surgeons.

After a shabby, sluggish Game 3, featuring enough air balls and air-headed plays for seven games, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers could use a few nips, tucks and lifts. Another good night's sleep or afternoon nap might help, too.

"It wasn't the prettiest game," said Celtics center Kevin Garnett, who missed two dunks and seems to have left his shooting touch back in May.

For two franchises that have combined for 30 titles won by a Who's Who of Hall of Fame hoopsters, it was indeed a night to forget.

But playing in front of Jack, Denzel, Hef and the rest of their celebrity-laden crowd in Staples Center, where they're 9-0 in the postseason and perfect over the past two months, the Lakers, despite missing 13 free throws, pulled within 2-1 in the reborn rivalry series with an 87-81 victory Tuesday night.

Boston, for its many warts, which included a 35 percent shooting performance, still had a chance win.

As the teams practiced for Thursday night's Game 4, several players blamed the six-hour flight from Boston to Los Angeles for the sloppiness.

"I think most of the players out there struggled physically," Lakers center Pau Gasol said. "You could tell the travel and Game 2 and 3 being so tight together, going across the country pretty much is an overseas trip. It was like going back to Spain. I think that was a factor."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, too, noticed players may have been feeling the affects of jet lag and fighting fatigue.

"This was the first game that I had four or five different players during the game signal to pull them out," he said. "I had to blow a timeout, one that I didn't want to use late. I thought it was a very tough turnaround and I think rest is very important."

One guy seems refreshed. Kobe Bryant soared as usual.

The Lakers' superstar scored 36 points, and showing why he's the league's MVP, did what he had to do to get his team back into the finals. Bryant went 12-of-20 from the floor, dropping jumpers, hanging in the air to sink floaters and drawing double teams to set up his teammates.

However, only one of them -- Sasha Vujacic -- matched Bryant's production. The 24-year-old came off the bench and scored a career-high 20 points, but "The Machine," as he dubbed himself, was the only Lakers player besides Bryant to rise to the occasion in the must-est of must-win games.

Los Angeles' other four starters -- Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher -- combined for 22 points on 7-of-28 shooting. For the second straight game, Odom was plagued foul trouble, which forced Lakers coach Phil Jackson to distribute the forward's minutes to others.

"I have to stay aggressive," Odom said, "but it's hard to when you're not out on the floor."

The Celtics have their own problems, like getting Garnett going and hoping that Paul Pierce, who had a horrid homecoming in Game 2, doesn't choke under the pressure of playing in front of folks from his neighborhood in nearby Inglewood.

There's also the playing status of point guard Rajon Rondo, who injured his left ankle early in the second half of Game 3 and was kept out of practice on Wednesday.

Rivers said if the speedy Rondo is slowed by the injury that backups Eddie House and Sam Cassell would see more time. Rivers also may use Tony Allen, who hasn't played in the series but did a solid job of guarding Bryant during Boston's two wins over Los Angeles during the regular season.

Cassell is one of the few Celtics with championship experience. He won two championship rings with the Houston Rockets and has been trying to tell his teammates to relax and not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the finals.

"It's the same game, it's just a bigger stage," Cassell said. "You're not at your high school auditorium any more. This is Carnegie Hall."

And so far in the series, Garnett hasn't appeared ready for it.

The Celtics' inspirational leader has displayed his usual intensity and has been his customary force on the boards. But he's just 22-of-62 (36 percent) and missed 15 shots in Game 2. Without Garnett as an offensive threat, the Celtics have to count on Pierce and Ray Allen to carry the scoring load.

"We've got to get Kevin going, clearly," Rivers said. "He's shooting below 40 in the series, and that's something he doesn't do. Paul, I honestly never worry about a lot offensively. He's a great offensive player. He had a tough night, and he'll get it going."

Pierce admitted feeling nerves in his return to L.A., and his stats line: 2-for-14 from the field, 0-for-4 on 3-pointers, six points in 32 minutes, reflected it. He said he wasn't bothered by the sprain knee he suffered in Game 1, but the strain of being home may have been too much.

"I was probably a little more anxious than normal being that I'm at home in front of more family and more friends," he said. "I've got to block that out and go out there and leave it on the court. I've done it in the past, I've been out there and played and played well, and it's time for me to do it again."



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