LOS ANGELES - For most of the fourth quarter Sunday, the Celtics appeared to have resurrected the swagger that allowed them to close out difficult games on the road. The only thing they needed for a critical road win against a bitter rival was one more positive offensive possession.
The Celtics had 161 seconds to get one more basket, and their offense had been clicking. But they missed their final six shots and Andrew Bynum scored two key baskets in an 8-0 game-ending Lakers run, handing Boston a 97-94 loss at Staples Center.
Ray Allen drained a 3-pointer with 2:41 left that gave the Celtics what appeared to be a secure 94-89 lead, especially with the way their shots were falling. Boston had converted nine of its first 18 shots of the fourth quarter, and Allen had scored 8 of his 17 points in the final period.
Yet when it counted, nobody could produce. Allen missed a 3-pointer and a jumper. Kevin Garnett missed an open jumper. Brandon Bass missed one of his customary midrange jumpers after hitting seven of his previous eight shots. And, under pressure, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo missed last-second 3-point attempts.
After Kobe Bryant made a fadeaway, the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum was planted under the basket but reached back and tipped in a Bryant alley-oop to reduce the deficit to 94-93 with 1:17 left. After Bryant dropped in a 14-footer with 41.7 seconds to go to give the Lakers a 95-94 lead, the Lakers then lobbed it into Bynum again. Against the undersized Garnett, Bynum used his bulk to create a teardrop jump hook that produced a 97-94 lead with 15.5 seconds to play.
The Celtics don’t have a legitimate center on their roster. Jermaine O’Neal missed his ninth straight game with a sprained wrist and Chris Wilcox is out indefinitely with a potential heart abnormality.
So coach Doc Rivers was left with Garnett, a natural power forward, to play center. Garnett used his wiles to defend Bynum, forcing him to take 16 shots to score his 20 points, but down the stretch Garnett could offer little to no resistance.
“I told the guys before the game that the Lakers were going to be bigger than us before the game, during the game, and after the game,’’ Rivers said. “But we are going to have to be more athletic, and we are going to have to be tougher, and overall I thought that game played out on the floor pretty [well].
“They made some big shots. We feared [Bynum] may have a big game with our lack of size. Kevin was right there, he just made a tough shot.’’
The result was a testament to the Celtics’ softness in the middle.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins last season because he believed Shaquille O’Neal could fill in at center, and that failed miserably because of injuries to O’Neal. Jermaine O’Neal played well in stretches but injuries have limited his minutes, so Garnett and Greg Stiemsma were all the Celtics had to offer.
And the Lakers knew that. So with Los Angeles ahead by 1 point with 23.8 seconds left, Bryant suggested he play decoy and the Lakers allow Bynum to go one-on-one with Garnett.
“Boston’s a great team,’’ said Bynum, who finished with 14 rebounds. “They sadly have guys hurt, guys that didn’t play today. Wilcox and O’Neal would have been a little bit more physical down there. We want to win, we love beating this team.’’
The Celtics were close to a momentous road victory. But scoring droughts have plagued the offense all season.
“The problem was we couldn’t get any stops,’’ Pierce said about the final three minutes. “Kobe made some tough shots. They went down to Bynum and [Pau] Gasol. I thought we probably fouled too much down the stretch. I thought we had great looks, though.’’
The Celtics had shot 64.7 percent (22 for 34) in the second half entering the final 2:41. Allen and Bass were making jumpers. Garnett’s stepback was falling, and Pierce, who was 2 of 11 in the first half, played distributor in the second.
“In the fourth quarter so many different guys can make shots for us,’’ Allen said. “We all were in good situations to score but it didn’t go our way. The last two or three possessions, we got good shots.’’
Said Rondo, “It’s kind of like what happened at the Garden [against the Lakers last month]. We just got to try to find a way to get better, find a way to get stops down the stretch and rebound the ball. We just have to close out quarters better and continue to work on our execution.’’