Stein: Game 4 Unkind to No. 24

LOS ANGELES -- Finally in these NBA Finals, which really hadn't been so dreamy, you came away from the game actually talking about the basketball.

As opposed to wheelchair dramas, free-throw disparities and depressing shadows cast by a rogue referee.

You know what else?

You came away from Thursday night's historic Game 4 more than ready to draw conclusions, because the record-setting rally uncorked by the Boston Celtics in this 97-91 triumph amounts to a call-the-champagne-guy comeback.

Surely you won't disagree that we just saw a virtual series clincher.

It's the unavoidable conclusion when a 24-point lead -- at home -- isn't enough for No. 24.

The 24th Finals game of Kobe Bryant's career had the Celtics trailing by 20 points halfway through the third quarter, unable until 4:07 remained in the game to snatch their first lead and then showing their steel from there by refusing to give it back ... all while Bryant could finish with only a measly 17 points on 6-for-19 shooting.

"Some turnaround in that ballgame," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, not quite believing what he had just seen. "The air went out of that building."

Indeed. All of Lakerland -- as well as those countless know-it-alls like me who picked L.A. to win the so-called Rivalry Revisited -- has to see it now.

If Lamar Odom's near-perfect start, Boston's losing yet another starter to injury (Kendrick Perkins joining Rajon Rondo on the sidelines) and that huge scoreboard edge couldn't add up to a W, it's pretty much official that the MVP trophy Kobe needed 12 seasons to win will be remembered as his only hardware in 2007-08, no matter how banged-up Boston seems.

If the Lakers can't hold a 70-50 lead in a must-win game -- in a building where they were 9-0 in these playoffs -- how are they going to drag themselves out of a 3-1 hole?

Which has never been done in Finals history.

I suppose you could counter with a reminder that the Celtics just pulled off their own Finals first. The largest recorded comeback in championship series history before this one, since they began keeping such stats in 1970-71, was Houston's rally from 20 points down to Orlando in 1995's Game 1.

Yet it's a serious reach to suggest that now it's the Lakers' turn to do something we've never seen.

Paul Pierce, after all, has been the best go-to guy in this series. Which is to say better than Bryant, no matter how many of us forecasted these Finals as some sort of victory lap for the MVP.

Pierce out-closed the game's foremost closer again by asking to switch onto Kobe defensively for the second half, helping to prevent the explosion we all expected after Bryant failed to register a first-half field goal. Boston's team scheme is just too good for Bryant to turn it on, which Kobe discovered again in a 6-for-15 struggle in the final two quarters, as he strained to find a rhythm after Odom and all those role players got off early.

"They were determined not to let me beat them tonight," Kobe said. "I saw three, four bodies every time I touched the ball."

"People will look at his offense," Boston coach Doc Rivers said of Pierce's 20 points and seven assists, "but I thought we won the game because Paul was a tremendous defensive player tonight."

Two more killer factors: L.A. was outscored 31-15 in the worst of its fourth successive third-quarter outage ... and Boston has clearly stolen the Lakers' comeback mojo.

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