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Down 2-0 to Celtics, Lakers look for bounce back in finals

Frequent flyers, the Los Angeles Lakers were allowed an unlimited number of carry-on items for their trip home.

Frequent flyers, the Los Angeles Lakers were allowed an unlimited number of carry-on items for their trip home.

It remains to be seen if any of them contained momentum. After losing two games in Boston, the Lakers returned to California on Monday in a hole as deep as Topanga Canyon. Over 96 minutes, they have looked nothing like the team which pulverized Denver, pushed aside Utah and swatted away San Antonio with ease on the way to winning the Western Conference title.

With the exception of an eight-minute stretch at the end of Game 2, Kobe Bryant and his crew have looked sickly in the finals.

However, there's no truth to the rumour they were taken from their charter plane at LAX in Paul Pierce's infamous wheelchair.

Though down 0-2, and facing history along with the league's toughest defence, the Lakers felt good about their comeback - they whacked a 24-point deficit to two over the final 7:55 - and are confident they can swing the series at the Staples Center in Game on Tuesday night.

They are 8-0 in the post-season there and unbeaten in 14 home games since March 28.

"All they did is protect their home court," said Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic, who made two three-pointers in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 108-102 loss and had a potential go-ahead three blocked by Pierce with 14 seconds left. "All they did was protect their home court, so it's going to be a different story in L.A."

It had better be.

Only three teams: Boston against Los Angeles in 1969, Portland against Philadelphia in 1977, and Miami against Dallas in 2006 have overcome an 0-2 deficit to win it all. The Lakers have some work to do if they intend to be the fourth.

Through two games, they have been outhustled, outmuscled, outeverythinged by a Celtics team now two wins from a 17th NBA championship. Following Sunday's loss, Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson was asked if the team can carry the momentum from their failed, frantic fourth-quarter comeback into Game 3.

"No, no," said Jackson, who has been delivering one-liners like Rodney Dangerfield during the series. "It's 2,500 miles away. It's too far to carry it."

The purple-and-gold, though, have been a different club while playing before super fan Jack Nicholson and Hollywood's glitzy crowd. Like the Celtics, the Lakers will try to feed off the energy of being back in familiar surroundings.

The perpetually sunglassed Nicholson, who was a no-show in Boston, has been around long enough to remember the days when the NBA finals were in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, that is, the team with the best record hosts Games 1 and 2 and hits the road for Games 3 and 4 before the series goes back and forth for Games 5, 6 and 7.

The our house, your house, our house matchups over those final three games drove up the drama and built suspense to a crescendo, creating some of the most memorable finals games and series in history. But that all came to an end in 1985, following a chat between a then-rookie commissioner and pro basketball's cigar-waving patriarch.

More than two decades ago, when the Celtics and Lakers were hogging basketball's biggest stage and treating it as their own annual best-of-seven post-season playground, Red Auerbach, Boston's legendary coach and guiding spirit, suggested to David Stern that the schedule for the finals be changed to its current 2-3-2 sequence.

Stern remembers it well.

"Although he's not here to deny it, Red said to me be back in '84, that this is too much play, travel, play, travel, play, travel," said the commish, whose tenure began 23 years ago with Magic versus Bird Act I. "In subsequent years, he said it was terrible that we went to the 2-3-2, but a young commissioner was motivated by the father of us all."

Father doesn't always know best.

Somewhere, Red may be wishing he hadn't opened his cigar-savouring mouth.

Since its inception in 1985, the 2-3-2 format has been a sore spot among players and some coaches, who contend the setup hurts the top-seeded team, which earned the right to host Games 1 and 2 based on having the better regular-season record.

Instead of hosting the all important and pivotal Game 5, the No. 1 team, in this case the Celtics, must play three straight games - unless they sweep - on the road in front of a raucous crowd. Lose the last one, and a team can be on the brink of losing the series.

"From afar, what I've never liked about the 2-3-2 is you fight all year to have Game 7 at home and Game 5 at home," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Game 5 is taken away from you. We're had three huge Game 5s in the first three rounds. All of them have been at home."

Jackson isn't as down on the 2-3-2 concept as Rivers, but as always, the Zen Master has his own take on the difficulties of playing three in a row in one place.

"The duration of three games on one court, those have always been tough to maintain," said Jackson, tied with Auerbach with nine NBA titles. "I've had teams that have been on the road and won three games in a row, but I can't ever remember winning three the other way around as a home coach in the finals."

Jackson, 9-1 in the finals, has never done it, but others have. Since the 2-3-2 format began, both the Detroit Pistons (2004) - against the Lakers - and Miami Heat (2006) won the three middle games on their home court.

The Lakers are capable of doing it, too, but they'll need Bryant to start being himself and make some shots. He's 20-of-49 in two games. They need Pau Gasol to assert himself from start to finish, and they'll need their touted bench to do more than it has done so far. Boston's reserves have outclassed the Lakers' backups.

It wouldn't hurt, either, if Los Angeles got some calls. In Sunday night's loss, the Celtics went to the free throw line 38 times to just 10 for the Lakers, many of whom barked at the officials throughout the game. Bryant was called for a technical for complaining and Danny Crawford seemed to be close to giving him a second one.

Jackson pointed out that Celtics reserve Leon Powe (it rhymes with show), whose name he mispronounced following the game, shot more free throws (13) than his entire team.

"That's ridiculous," he said. "Unbelievable."

He could have been talking about his team.

 
 
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