LOS ANGELES - This was it. Paul Pierce was going to will the Celtics to another come-from-behind victory in the NBA Finals and he was going to add his name to the list of Celtic legends who hung banners above the parquet. Was there any doubt? Pierce had dominated all game and now he had the game - and the fate of the Finals - in his hands, in his hometown no less.
He'd just grabbed a huge defensive rebound and was bringing the ball up the court with the Celtics trailing, 97-95, with 40.9 seconds left. But as he prepared for yet another foray to the hoop, Kobe Bryant poke-checked the ball away from behind leading to a breakaway dunk by Bryant that put the Lakers up, 99-95, with 37.4 seconds left. An exhausted Pierce could only watch. The Lakers held on for a 103-98 win last night at Staples Center to cut the Celtics' lead in the series to 3-2 and send the NBA Finals back to Boston for Game 6 tomorrow.
"We tried to run a screen roll, which we've been running all fourth quarter with Kevin [Garnett] setting the high pick. I thought I cleared the screen and [Kobe] made a great defensive play," said Pierce. "He reached around and tapped the ball away from behind and it was just a great defensive play. That was pretty much all he could do.
"Kobe is a great player. He made two great steals on myself during the fourth quarter that I shouldn't have allowed. It definitely hurts, a tough one to swallow, but we got to get the next one at home."
Pierce deserved better. He deserved to be wrapped around the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He deserved to have his name announced as Finals MVP, as he vanquished the team he'd grown up rooting for, but all that will have to wait. Regardless of the result last night, it was a heroic performance by Pierce.
With Garnett in foul trouble and Ray Allen shooting 4 of 13 and fouling out, Pierce carried the Celtics, scoring 38 points (on 10-of-22 shooting), dishing out 8 assists, and grabbing 6 rebounds, while playing all but two seconds of the game on a bum right knee and playing the final 3:31 with five fouls.
The Lakers, Bryant included, had no answer for Pierce, as he got into the paint, to the basket, and to the free throw line (16 for 19) at will, swerving and slicing through the Lakers' defense.
"He was terrific," said Rivers. "I thought he was really aggressive to the basket. I thought he really went for it. We had told the guys you can't just wait for the 48 minutes to expire."
"His matchup is difficult," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He's strong. He made some step-throughs and pivots to get by defenders. It's something we're going to have to figure out and do a better job on."
After allowing the Lakers to shoot 15 of 23 (65.2 percent) in the first quarter on their way to a 39-22 lead, the Celtics tightened up on defense, holding LA to 7 of 21 and just 16 points in the second. Boston shot a sizzling 57.9 percent in the second quarter, led by Pierce.
The Celtics captain had 21 points in the first half, pouring in 16 in the second quarter as the Celtics charged back into the game after trailing, 41-22, when Jordan Farmar scored the first points of the second period on a finger roll. Pierce, the Pride of Inglewood, more than matched Bryant's 15-point first quarter by hitting 6 of 9 shots in the second, including two 3-pointers, the last of which with 5.2 seconds left before halftime cut the Laker lead to 55-52.
In the third quarter, Pierce gave the Celtics their first lead of the game (58-57) on a free throw with 9:59 left in the third.
Down the stretch, his most brilliant play was a Bird-esque pass to James Posey, who canned a 3-pointer that came as Pierce was falling to the ground after getting tripped up in the lane to cut LA's lead to 90-86.
But Bryant had the last play. Yet, even he acknowledged that it was Pierce's night until the end.
"Paul is one of my favorite players in the league. He's tough. I enjoy watching him and enjoy playing against him," said Bryant.