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Lakers 87, Celtics 81

Celtics let one slip away in L.A.

Boston maintains 2-1 series edge

Celtics forward James Posey dives for a loose ball in Game 3.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Celtics forward James Posey dives for a loose ball in Game 3.

LOS ANGELES - Instead of finding an excuse to “whine” like Lakers coach Phil Jackson after Game 2, Doc Rivers just accepted the Celtics’ first loss of the NBA Finals and told his team to do the same.

The Celtics lost Game 3, 87-81, to the Lakers before a celebrity-laden crowd at Staples Center last night. Boston still holds a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 here tomorrow night. The Lakers improved to 9-0 in the postseason at home and beat the Celtics for the first time in five attempts this season.

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Asked if the Celtics let one slip away, Rivers said, “Either that or they should have blown us out.”

Celtics guard Ray Allen, who had 25 points (five 3-pointers), said, “We definitely had opportunities.”

Following a 108-102 Game 2 loss in Boston, Jackson complained loudly about Boston getting more attempts from the free throw line, 38-10. On this night, the Lakers had 34 attempts from the line to the Celtics’ 22, (including 18 by Kobe Bryant).

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Rivers had no excuse for the loss - and had some words for Jackson in the process.

When told that Jackson said Kevin Garnett looked tired in the fourth quarter, Rivers said, “I’m just surprised he didn’t whine about fouls tonight. I don’t know if Kevin was tired or not. Bottom line is, we just didn’t play well as a group, and it wasn’t just Kevin.

”I told our guys, ‘Listen, you guys had a chance to win but don’t be delusional. That team attacked you, they were the aggressor.’ That’s why they went to the foul line, and they deserved it.

”I told them I don’t want to hear about Coach Jackson complaining and that’s why - no, that’s not why. They played harder, they drove to the basket, and they deserved to go to the foul line.”

Allen’s fellow All-Stars, Paul Pierce and Garnett, struggled offensively.

Pierce, who had averaged 27.9 points and shot 46.8 percent in nine career road games against the Lakers, missed 12 of his 14 field goal attempts and finished with 6 points. Jackson credited Bryant for his defense on Pierce.

”He is a tough scorer,” said Bryant. “I just tried to accept the challenge and make it tough for him.”

Garnett, who was averaging 21.2 points in the postseason, missed 15 of 21 shots en route to 13 points.

”It’s not a perfect game,” said Garnett. “Sometimes we make it look easy. But that’s the great thing about this game, we have more games to play.”

Said Jackson: “Kevin kind of just ran out of gas. It looked like he was gassed sometime in the fourth quarter. Putting Kobe on Pierce was the difference in tonight’s game. It was more difficult for him to get free. He still had some instrumental plays down the stretch, but it made the difference for us tonight.”

Bryant scored a game-high 36 points by making 12 of 20 from the field and 11 of 18 free throw attempts. Sasha Vujacic scored 20 points and nailed three 3-pointers off the bench.

”It was great to be at home finally and playing in front of the home crowd,” Vujacic said. “I think they gave us a little bit more confidence than usual.

”We just played with heart. We didn’t play a great game. We didn’t even play good. We were just fighting, and that was the key.”

Boston was down just 73-70 after a Rajon Rondo putback with 5:42 remaining. The Lakers built it to 77-70 with 4:17 remaining on a putback by Pau Gasol (9 points).

Pierce was fouled on a lay-in with 3:53 remaining, but after he missed the free throw, Boston was behind, 77-72. Pierce nailed two free throws with 3:22 left to bring the Celtics within 78-74. Garnett’s jumper with 2:42 remaining trimmed it to 78-76.

”I liked our position,” Rivers said. “I liked our position the whole game.”

Vujacic’s wide-open 3-pointer in front of Boston’s bench gave the Lakers an 81-76 lead with 1:53 left. And with 1:33 left, Derek Fisher nailed two free throws to give Los Angeles a comfortable 83-76 lead. Boston reserve guard Eddie House’s 3-pointer with 59.3 seconds left sliced Los Angeles’s lead to 85-81.

”This game was never out of reach for us,” Garnett said. “If you pull out any positives, that’s what you pull out.”

But Bryant made an 11-foot jumper to put the Lakers ahead, 87-81, with 38 seconds left. And after Garnett was called for an offensive foul while trying to set a screen with 21.1 seconds left, Boston’s first Finals loss was only seconds away.

The Lakers outscored the Celtics, 27-19, in the fourth quarter, holding Boston to 30 percent from the field (6 of 20).

”We got some turnovers, and our defense stepped up a little bit,” said Jackson. “Offensively, we did some things down there at the other end.”

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