A memorable night for all wrong reasons

The NBA has had a lot of memorable nights but none like this . . . for which the league is eternally thankful.

This was the NBA’s Lost Tuesday. In a game appropriate to the ugly controversy that blew in from disgraced referee Tim Donaghy’s case earlier in the day, the Lakers beat the Celtics, 87-81, in the first mud-wrestling match held in lieu of a Finals game.

The Lakers led by 11 points early but saw the Celtics come back to take the lead midway through the third quarter, at which point Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom had combined to score no field goals.

Even with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combining to miss 27 of their 35 shots, that was how close the Celtics came to taking a 3-0 lead and effectively ending this eagerly-awaited series on a grisly note.

Talk about your lost opportunities . . .

“Well, either that or they should have blown us out, one of the two,” said Boston Coach Doc Rivers, laughing.


” . . . I look at it as the opposite of that. We had a chance to steal a game here when our guys were off.”

On the bright side for the NBA, if it got through this night with this series still going and ABC hasn’t canceled the contract, there’s still hope.

How bad was it?

Veteran NBA writers -- Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated and I -- ruled it the worst NBA Finals game in history.

However, McCallum did think there may have been some others that were close.

“Those games last spring between the Cavaliers and the Spurs weren’t any classics,” he said. “Of course, I don’t remember much of what went on.”

This was like a 100-yard dash between two caterpillars.

In the middle of the third period, the Lakers’ offense was officially broken. Neither Gasol nor Odom had made a shot, Kobe Bryant was trying to beat the Celtics single-handedly and Coach Phil Jackson, the great optimist, wasn’t so optimistic.

“I called two timeouts in that period,” said Jackson, whose preference is never to call any. “If I had no timeouts to call, I would have called a timeout.”

If nothing else, this proved Jackson was right when he said the momentum from the Lakers’ fourth-quarter rally in Game 2 wouldn’t carry over.

They took it to the Celtics from the opening tip, got the benefit of most of the calls, shooting 34 free throws to Boston’s 22, a result of their aggressiveness . . . and Jackson’s complaint after the Celtics got 38 to the Lakers’ 10 in Game 2 . . . and still wound up coming from behind.

Not that the Celtics were upset but Rivers, asked about Jackson’s observation that Garnett looked exhausted, replied:

“I’m just surprised he didn’t whine about fouls tonight.”

Noting accurately that “This wasn’t a beautiful ballgame,” Jackson blamed it on the teams flying coast-to-coast with one day off.

Nevertheless, his team, which hadn’t figured out how to run its offense against the Celtics in four previous games this season, all of which the Lakers lost, still hasn’t figured it out.

Tuesday night Jackson put Bryant on point guard Rajon Rondo, which gave Bryant a chance to drop off and roam, as Garnett has been doing, dropping off Odom.

The result was that neither team could run an offense. Given the fact that neither was exactly shooting the lights out, this made for a long, grinding night.

Even Bryant, who made 12 of 20 field goals, scoring 36 points and somehow ferrying the Lakers to safety, missed seven of his 18 free throws.

“I mean, look, we’re playing a great defensive team,” said Bryant afterward.

“They’re going to take something away. The important thing for us is to figure out how to win despite that and that’s the key if you want to win a championship. We’ve got to figure out how to win ballgames when we don’t shoot particularly well, when Lamar is in foul trouble, when Pau is in foul trouble. We still have to figure out how to win.”

Unfortunately for the Lakers, they won Tuesday night only because someone had to, so they’d better keep working on it.