Bryant scored 25 points, making a key steal and decisive dunk in the final minute, and Lamar Odom added 20 points as the Lakers, playing with pride on their star-studded stage, prevented the Boston Celtics from winning a 17th championship with a 103-98 win in Game 5 on Sunday night to close to 3-2 in this restored rivalry.
The champagne stayed on ice. The T-shirts and ball caps went back into boxes. The Larry O'Brien trophy got bubble wrapped and ready for shipment.
The NBA finals aren't over. They're headed East.
At the final horn, when the Lakers had survived to play another day, purple-and-gold streamers rained down from above Staples Center. Odom shook his head in approval, Derek Fisher caressed the game ball against his chest and Bryant clapped his hands before striding from the floor.
"I love L.A." blared through the speakers and "Not In Our House!" flashed on the scoreboard.
The P.A. announcer cried, "This is not over yet!"
Los Angeles avoided its season ending. On this night, you could call them the L.A. Dodgers.
"We didn't want to see any champagne popping," Odom said. "It wasn't easy. I wouldn't expect it to be."
No team has overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals to win a title. The first 28 failed, and now the Lakers, who blew a 24-point lead and lost Game 4 and nearly squandered a 19-point lead in Game 5, have a chance to do something extraordinary.
They'll have to win on the Celtics' parquet floor Tuesday night to force Game 7, where anything is possible.
Especially with Bryant, the game's best player, on hand. "In training camp if you told us, 'We'll give you two games that you have to win to win a world championship,' we would have taken it in a heartbeat," Bryant said. "This is a great opportunity for us."
The league's MVP and ultimate finisher isn't finished yet. On a night when Bryant didn't have his best game, the other Lakers came up big.
Pau Gasol had 19 points and 13 rebounds, Odom had 11 rebounds and four blocks, Fisher added 15 points and Jordan Farmar came off the bench to get 11.
"We were aggressive. We played hard," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Not smart all the time, but we played hard."
Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 38 points and played all but two seconds. Kevin Garnett added 13 points and 14 rebounds but was in foul trouble, and Ray Allen had 16 points. But Boston's Big Three couldn't close out their first chance at winning it all, and now will get two cracks at home.
"Well, we wanted to go back home, but we didn't want to play," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You know what I mean? But now we have to go play, and we earned that right. That's why the regular season is so important. We fought for it all year. We have Game 6 at home, and that's not a bad place to be."
The Celtics, though, are beaten up.
They played without Kendrick Perkins, who injured his shoulder in Game 4 and may not be available the rest of the season. On top of that Pierce and Rajon Rondo are playing hurt and after the game Allen left the arena immediately because of an undisclosed health issue with one of his children.
The Celtics, trying to win their first title since 1986, are consoled by the fact they are going home. They are 47-7 at TD Banknorth Garden this season.
Garnett missed two free throws that would have tied it with 2:32 left and was disappointed with his performance in the biggest game of his career.
"I played like garbage," he said. "I can do better and I will."
After scoring 15 points in the first quarter, Bryant went cold from the floor and finished just 8-of-21. But he made a big steal, poking the ball away from Pierce and streaked down and caught a long pass from Odom before delivering a two-handed dunk with 37.4 seconds left.
"I just was kind of reading the play and I was able to get my hands on the ball and get out and get a dunk," Bryant said.
The Celtics called a timeout, superfan Jack Nicholson jumped to his feet and the scoreboard in Staples Center flashed: Not In Our House!
On Saturday, Bryant had said "this is far from over," and he could be right.
Accused of being selfish and too tough on his not-as-talented teammates, Bryant can bow to the other Lakers for sending the series back across country. Gasol, the 7-foot Spanish center criticized for being soft, didn't back down underneath and was able to get Garnett into foul trouble.
But just as they did in Game 4, when they staged the biggest comeback in finals history, the Celtics pushed the Lakers to the brink of summer with another rally. This one fell a little short, but the outcome was still in doubt when Pierce, who grew up hating Boston like every other kid from L.A., made two free throws with 1:14 remaining to get the Celtics to 97-95.
Fisher then missed a jumper and the Celtics appeared to be in business when Pierce fought off two Lakers for a rebound. But as he dribbled toward the basket, Bryant reached around and knocked the ball away to Odom, who then fed Bryant for his slam.
Still, the Celtics wouldn't go away.
After Bryant missed one of two free throws with 16 seconds left, Eddie House nailed a 3-pointer to make it 101-98 with 14 seconds left. House then nearly stole the ensuing inbounds pass, but Bryant, sprawled out on the floor, got the ball to Fisher, who drew a desperation foul.
Fisher then made two free throws and stole Boston's last pass as Lakers fans, stunned to silence a few nights ago, left the building dreaming of seeing another improbable comeback.
This is the 11th meeting -- and first since 1987 -- between the league's two most storied franchises, and it could be headed for a crescendo befitting the matchups between Bird and Magic, McHale and Abdul-Jabbar, and Russell and West.
Before the game, Lakers coach Jackson said the only way for his team to approach a close-out game was to keep playing.
"A lot of things can happen," he said. "We're young enough and dumb enough to be able to do this."
Notes: The Celtics played their 25th game of these playoffs, equaling the most by any team in one postseason. New York (1994) and Detroit (2005) also played 25, each ending with Game 7 losses in the finals. ... Boston is 22-0 in series it has led 3-2, including 6-0 in the finals. ... Pierce denied a report that he'll have surgery on his sprained knee, although he may need one once he decides to have an MRI to assess the damage.