BOSTON — This isn't going to be easy. And there is one particular development to back my prediction:
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant couldn't — as the legendary Eagle-Tribune sportswriter Max Bishop used to say about poor-hitting Red Sox players — hit the broad side of a barn with a canoe paddle.
And still the Lakers won, 91-84.
Bryant is a mess, shooting 10 for 29 last night and 28 or 71 for the series, yet the Lakers are in control of the NBA Finals, 2-1.
Even worse, Pau Gasol, unstoppable in Games 1 and 2, was nearly has ineffective as Bryant. He had 13 points, after 23 and 25 points in the first two games.
But rather than crumble, which seemed to a prerequisite two years ago, the Lakers found a way to win, to stop the bleeding when it appeared the Celtics were ready to take over the series.
The Celtics made their run in the fourth quarter, really gaining momentum in the third quarter by closing a 14-point gap to four points.
Then in the fourth quarter, they twice had opportunities to tie the game or take the lead — they trailed 68-67 with 9:15 remaining and they trailed 76-73 with 5:15 remaining.
Twice they weren't able to get a shot off.
Ray Allen (0 for 13) blew the first opportunity, slamming into Derek Fisher for an offensive foul. And Ron Artest (two points) knocked the ball out of Glen Davis' hands and off his leg with the ball going out of bounds.
Those missed opportunities, though, might have been forgotten if not for a few stops, which appeared to be doable with the struggling Bryant.
But Lamar Odom had two big baskets, one a short bank shot shortly after Allen's offensive foul, to put the Lakers ahead 72-69. And the other was a driving layup as the 24-second clock was about to expire to put the Lakers ahead 80-76.
The star of the night, though, was Fisher. He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, eight of which came off a simple pick-and-roll with Bryant in which he would go left (he is left-handed). It made for some easy looking baskets.
"He won the game for them," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "All you need is a stop. But Fisher drives and get a three-point play. He's a gutty, gritty player."
Rivers, though, was quick to point out that you can't credit the "other" Lakers without giving a tip of the cap to Bryant, struggling or not.
"When Kobe's on the floor, it opens things up for everybody," said Rivers. "I've said that before about Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen). Even if they're not having a great game, they create space for others just by being out there."
Can we expect more struggles from Bryant the rest of this series?
Probably some. Since Chicago Bulls head coach-to-be Tom Thibodeau has been calling the Celtics' defense, they've had one thing going for them. They have bothered Bryant.
He just doesn't get the easy games and easy hoops the Western Conference seem to allow the future Hall of Famer. These Celtics have done this to other stars, most notably LeBron James.
But bothering Bryant is no longer enough. These Lakers are tougher, mentally and physically, than we remember. Of course, we forget they did win a championship a year ago.
The fact is that this isn't going to be easy. The Celtics are not as good as they were two years ago in some areas and a little better in others while the Lakers are more worthy now than before.
"We'll bounce back," assured Rivers, as he left the podium just after midnight.
Let's just say I'm glad he's so sure.
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.