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Published: Monday, 6/14/2010

Celtics close in on NBA title

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOSTON - It's looking a lot like 2008 again, with Paul Pierce carrying the Boston Celtics to victory in the NBA finals and leading them to the brink of yet another title.

Pierce scored 27 points - his best performance of this year's finals - and the Celtics withstood 38 points from Kobe Bryant to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 92-86 Sunday night and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Game 6 is tomorrow night in Los Angeles, and a victory then or in Game 7 in L.A. on Thursday would give the Celtics a record 18th NBA championship.

Pierce was the finals MVP in '08, when the new Big Three beat the Lakers to raise an NBA-record 17th banner to the rafters at Boston's TD Garden. Bryant was the finals MVP last year, when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic to win their 15th championship.

With the "Beat L.A!" chant returning to the Garden, Kevin Garnett scored 18 points with 10 rebounds, and Rajon Rondo had 18 points, eight assists, and five rebounds to help Boston become the first team in the series to win two games in a row. If the Los Angeles can't do the same at home, the Celtics will improve to 10-2 against them in the finals dating back to a 4-0 sweep over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959.

Bryant did everything he could to keep the Lakers in it.

He scored 23 straight Lakers points between the 4:23 mark of the second quarter until there was 2:16 left in the third. But that's also the time when the Celtics built their biggest lead: Over that span, they expanded the lead from one point to 13.

That's because Pierce was having his best game of the series too.

And he also had help.

The Celtics' captain scored seven points in the last 3 1/2 minutes of the second quarter and added nine more in the first five minutes of the third. Ray Allen, who hasn't hit a 3-pointer since making an NBA-record eight in Game 2, made a pair of baskets that gave Boston a 71-58 lead with

3:08 left in the third.

The Lakers got within six points several times, but never within five until Bryant made three free throws to make it 87-82 with 90 seconds left.

The Celtics got a break from a review when replays showed Allen's 3-pointer barely nicked the rim, giving them the ball with a fresh 24 seconds and 1:05 left. Rasheed Wallace missed a 3-pointer, but the rebound wound up tied up between the 6-foot-11 Garnett and 6-foot-1 Derek Fisher.

Fisher won, tipping the ball ahead to Ron Artest for a breakaway; he was fouled, and he missed both free throws. This time Bryant grabbed the rebound, but Pierce ripped it out of his arms and dribbled off to the side to call timeout.

A desperate inbounds pass went to Pierce, who fed Rondo under the basket before falling out of bounds, and Rondo made an over-the-head layup to make it 89-82 with 36 seconds left.

Bryant missed a series of desperation 3-pointers down the stretch, and when Allen made two free throws with 19 seconds left and Garnett one of two with 8.9 to play, it was over.



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