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.

The Lakers erased deficits of 20 and 17 here to stun San Antonio in Games 1 and 5 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, but it looks now as though the assist they got from the schedule-makers -- with such a short turnaround between rounds for the Spurs and no more than one day off between games -- was bigger than we knew. In this series, L.A.'s furious rally from its own 24-point deficit in Game 2 at Boston fell agonizingly just short, followed up by Lakers' sinking to new levels of despair with this collapse.

"We just wet the bed," Kobe said. "A nice big one, too. One of the ones you can't put a towel over. It was terrible."

It was also the Celtics' showing us, yet again, what they're capable of when liberated by the burden of expectation. We rarely saw this kind of calm, confidence and swagger from these guys in the first couple rounds of the playoffs, when they needed seven games to outlast lowly Atlanta and one-dimensional Cleveland while wearing the tag of Massive Favorites.

But they're showing some serious grit on the big stage, whether it's Ray Allen (19 points and nine rebounds) playing all 48 minutes, Eddie House hitting a couple of fourth-quarter triples or James Posey reminding us that he's done this before with Miami's 2006 title team by adding 18 clutch points off the bench.

Seems safe to say now that Rivers, after voicing numerous complaints about the 2-3-2 format used in the Finals, won't mind so much that Game 5 isn't in Boston. The Celts will have two consecutive cracks to finish this thing at home if they can't beat the demoralized Lakers on Sunday night, thanks to the success of a small-ball unit that featured Kevin Garnett at center in Perkins' place, Posey and House spreading the floor and scored a real upset by winning the speed game with L.A.

"I think these next two days are great," Pierce said. "I'm feeling kind of sore, kind of tweaked my knee tonight. Rajon is hurting, Perkins hurt his shoulder. So I think these two days will be great for us to recuperate from our minor injuries and try to suck it up on Sunday and end this thing before things get worse."

You surely understand that Pierce was simply being polite. The trouble is all Kobe and Phil's, since they're surrounded by a crew that's suddenly showing its youth even after the breakthrough of ousting the Spurs.

"It just looked like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and [have] him sort of finish it off," Garnett said of the Lakers' second-half fade. "That's what it looked like to me. It didn't really look cohesive like they did in the first half."

So it likewise seems safe to suggest that Bryant, as ring-laden as L.A.'s future would appear with Andrew Bynum due back next season to help Odom and Pau Gasol on the front line, won't be subjected to those nagging Michael Jordan comparisons for a while. With six losses in his past seven Finals games, Kobe is on the brink of a second successive five-game exit in the championship round.

Something you won't find on MJ's résumé, obviously.

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