Stein: Game 4 Unkind to No. 24

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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