The C's beat the Lakers 92-86 in Sunday night's Game 5 of the Finals at the TD Garden, and they take a 3-2 series lead to Los Angeles for Tuesday's Game 6.
Boston has seized momentum with two consecutive victories by committing itself to playing that brand of old-school, knock-'em-dead defense. With the officials swallowing their whistles in Games 4 and 5, the Celtics have been the enforcers — intimidating them, bullying them in the paint, stealing their lunch money and just making them flat-out uncomfortable.
And if it weren’t for Bryant's 38-point unconscionable performance in Game 5, the score would have been much more one-sided.
However, even in brilliance, Bryant's masterpiece was further proof of the Celtics' lockdown defense. The superstar scored 19 points in a crazy six-minute stretch of the third quarter, but 15 of those points came on jumpers — all from at least 15 feet, and most of the wild variety — with two points on an alley-oop and two more from the free-throw line.
"We're a team defense," said Tony Allen, who entered the game late in the third quarter and stifled Bryant. "That’s definitely what we want. We want him to take long-range contested 3s and difficult shots as much as he can. … We did it collectively as a team, and that’s what got us over the hump.
"That’s the vintage Kobe Bryant trying to take over the game, and we weathered that storm."
The Lakers had to work to get their points, and they had to rely on the jumper — only scoring 32 points in the paint in the game — to stay within striking distance. Their ball movement has been neutralized, and their best offense has come from Bryant's wild spurts and the occasional offensive rebound.
Los Angeles made 31-of-78 shots from the floor (39.7 percent) and only had a staggeringly low 12 assists. The Celtics forced the Lakers to take tough shots from long range with hands in their mugs, and they didn’t react well to that. Plus, big man Pau Gasol, who had been a juggernaut in the paint in this series, was stripped of his game and was a non-factor.
"I was happy with our defensive effort," said Paul Pierce, who was huge with 27 points to offset Bryant's surge. "We scrapped. We got them in the half court for the most part, and that’s the type of game we like. We like to look up and see the score in the 80s and 90s."
This is a good sign for the Celtics, whose most difficult task lies ahead with that knockout victory thousands of miles from home. The C's have the momentum, but much more importantly, they've got their swagger and they've rattled the Lakers, who simply can't play with Boston when the game isn’t over-officiated.
This next game (or two) will be about passion, hustle points, defensive intensity and an ability to win a street fight. No, the Celtics don’t have a Kobe Bryant, but they do have brass. So far in this series, that’s been the difference, and it should come up big when the teams head back to L.A.
"With the severity of the game, it's all out on both ends for both teams," Kevin Garnett said. "This will probably be the hardest game of the season, if not the series, if not of everybody's career."