LOS ANGELES — Just a few seconds after seldom-used Boston reserve Shelden Williams missed an uncontested dunk, Kobe Bryant floated to the rim and somehow willed a layup through tight defense to put the Lakers ahead by 22 points.
It was only the second quarter, but Game 6 was pretty much over. Los Angeles had responded to the threat of elimination from the NBA Finals with the closest thing to a shutout anyone is likely to see in big-time basketball.
Buckle up, Boston and L.A. This epic series between old rivals is going to Game 7.
Bryant scored 26 points, Pau Gasol added 17 points and 13 rebounds, and the Lakers emphatically earned a grand finale with a 89-67 victory over the Celtics on Tuesday night.
Ron Artest added 15 points for the Lakers, who got their backs off the wall with a dazzling first half. Although the offense was sharp, the Lakers mostly did it with defense, limiting Boston to the second lowest-scoring performance in NBA Finals history. Only Utah’s infamous 54-point performance against Chicago in 1998 was worse.
“I was very happy,” Bryant said after the defending champions stretched the Finals to the limit for the first time since 2005. “We did a great job defensively. We kept them out of the middle, kept them out of the paint, did a good job on the boards. It was a solid effort by us.”
A champion will be crowned Thursday night at Staples Center.
Bryant grabbed 11 rebounds, and Gasol led the Lakers with nine assists in a remarkable bounce-back game for Los Angeles, which dominated from the opening minutes by vacuuming up rebounds — 13 more than Boston — and playing relentless defense that limited the Celtics to 33 percent shooting. Two years after the Celtics ended the Finals with a 39-point blowout of the Lakers in Game 6, Los Angeles turned this Game 6 into a long nightmare for Boston.
“Our defense was good, our rebounding was better,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
“It’s really a high-tension situation,” added Jackson, a 10-time champion who has never coached a Game 7 in the Finals. “Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. It’s not about the coaching at that point. They’ve already got it in them. It’s about who comes out and provides the energy on the floor.”
Ray Allen scored 19 points for the Celtics, who took an ugly pratfall on the verge of winning their unprecedented 18th title. It turns out their longtime rivals are still quite serious about earning their 16th championship.
“We didn’t get in any rhythm early, and it affects our chemistry,” said Allen, whose two 3-pointers were his first since hitting a Finals-record eight in Game 2. “We each tried to make the home run play early. As a starting unit, we take responsibility. We have to do a better job next game.”
These rivals have played a Game 7 four times in their 11 previous finals meetings, with Boston winning all four. But it hasn’t happened since 1984 — and it hasn’t happened to Bryant, who looks determined to stake his claim among the NBA’s greats in pursuit of his fifth championship.
“We’re used to being in must-win situations,” Bryant said. “The way we look at it, (Game 7) is just a game we’ve got to win. ... I don’t mean to be a buzzkill. I know what’s at stake, but I’m not tripping.”
Bryant was a one-man band for much of the Lakers’ three-game stay in Boston, but Los Angeles was a symphony in Game 6. Gasol was a constant low-post presence and playmaker after disappearing for long stretches of the series, while Artest harnessed his wildly inconsistent jumper and hit three 3-pointers.
“We want to carry everything we did tonight to (Game 7), and then I think we’ll be in a very good place to win,” Gasol said. “When you bring the intensity we did tonight, good things are going to happen.”
Paul Pierce scored 13 points and Kevin Garnett added 12, but the Celtics’ offense was a jumbled, stand-around mess. Rajon Rondo, the late-game hero in Boston’s last appearance in Los Angeles, got off to a 1-for-8 shooting start before finishing with 10 points and six assists.
“I thought we’d play better, obviously,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we were ready. ... We played an individual game tonight on both ends. We never gave ourselves an opportunity offensively, because we never trusted each other. Everybody was out to make their own place.”
After earning the NBA’s second-best road record during the regular season, the Celtics must win on the road again to avoid becoming just the third team to blow a 3-2 series lead in the 2-3-2 Finals format.
The Celtics lost starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first quarter to a sprained right knee when he landed awkwardly under the hoop, but his absence couldn’t explain the Lakers’ utter domination of the first half — a 30-13 rebounding edge while holding Boston to 34 percent shooting.