Kobe Bryant is not the only one with a legacy on the line in these NBA Finals.
Regardless of what Paul Pierce does or doesn't do in the Finals, his No. 34 will be hoisted to the rafters one day at TD Garden. He has already elevated his place in Celtics lore. Only John Havlicek and Larry Bird have scored more points in a Celtics uniform. Only Bird (24.3) has averaged more points per game as a Celtic than Pierce (22.5).
But another ring moves Pierce into the pantheon of the parquet with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Havlicek, and Bird. It makes it easier to argue for his inclusion over Dave Cowens or Kevin McHale or Tommy Heinsohn or Sam Jones. History is written with the pen of the present, and right now the Celtics, trailing 2-1 in the Finals, need a legendary performance from Pierce in Game 4.
If the Lakers win tonight to go up 3-1, then the Celtics' comparisons to the 1968-69 team remain full of hot air like those famous Forum balloons. A Kobe-led team is not blowing a 3-1 lead with two games on its home floor, at least not one with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
So, tonight is like Game 7 for the Celtics and for Pierce, who no doubt was rooting for LA back in 1987 when the Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the Finals on Magic Johnson's mini-skyhook in an unfortunate Lakers-Celtics Game 4.
If Pierce doesn't pick up his play, then his proclamation about not returning to Los Angeles could prove prophetic for all the wrong reasons. It could haunt him like that May night in Indiana five years ago when he was ejected late in a playoff game after absorbing a hard foul and left the court helicoptering his jersey above his head, his ego and emotions spinning out of control.
"I have to just -- there's times I have to rise to the challenge," said Pierce, who has grown exponentially as a person and a player since the Indiana imbroligio. "We have a 1-2 hole, I have to play better, and I have to accept the challenge."
Whether it's foul trouble, off-nights or Ron Artest, Pierce has been scarce the last two games.
He started off 0-5 in both contests. In Game 2, the Celtics won despite him being just 2 of 11 from the field and not netting his first field goal until the third quarter. In Game 3, he started 0-5 again, and ended up with as many fouls (five) as field goals on his way to a 15-point night that included a meaningless layup with 5.1 seconds, making both the final score and his play look more palatable than they were.
The good news is that in 2008, when Pierce was Finals MVP, he also had a stinker in Game 3 -- 2 of 14, 6 points -- before dropping 20 in the famous Game 4 comeback.
"You know, we need Paul. We need Paul to be Paul Pierce, The Truth," said Kevin Garnett, who knows a thing or two about redemptive NBA Finals performances. "But it has to be something that...within everybody's flow of the game."
The truth about the Truth is that he has played two impactful quarters so far in these Finals. In Game 1, he had 24 points and 9 rebounds. He came out of the gate like a thoroughbred at the Santa Anita Derby, scoring 9 points in the first quarter. Then with his team trailing by 20, he had 13 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Strange, considering two years ago Pierce was the best player on the floor for much of the Finals. It's not a coincidence that two years ago Pierce was the Finals MVP, averaging 21.8 points per game. Pierce has always craved the limelight and for too long in his career he didn't have it.
It was just three years ago that he was mired on a team that was in the middle of a franchise-record 18-game losing streak. Instead of Ray Allen, he was playing with Allan Ray. The "Kevin" he had at power forward was Kevinn Pinkney.
Defiant, Pierce claimed that he was the classic case of a great player stuck on a bad team and that the only difference between himself and the NBA's brightest starts was the stage.
"There's a lot of times that I look at my peers, the Dwyane Wades, the LeBron James, the Kobe Bryants, I feel like I'm at the same level as all these guys," said Pierce in an interview with WEEI, hours before the Celtics ended up snapping their franchise-record losing skid against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"The only difference is the wins and being on a national stage. [That] is what separates us. I haven't had that opportunity this year."
He had that opportunity in 2008 and seized it. Now, he has it again.
There's no telling how many more times in his career Pierce, who turns 33 in October, will have this chance -- the chance to win a championship, the chance to cement his place in Celtics history.
Pierce could be entering a phase of his career like the other big No. 34 in town, David Ortiz, where injuries and age rob him of some of his once transcendent talent. Already, this season Pierce, who will never have a Men's Health magazine cover physique, has dealt with a creaky knee that had to be drained multiple times, a strained left mid-foot, and a banged up right thumb.
Pierce can opt-out of the final year of his contract and forego the $21.5 million he would make next season. It could get interesting if he does and the Celtics are leery of making another long-term commitment to an aging player.
He has always toed the line between Celtics Pride and Celtics Conceit in his career. But more often than not Pierce has proven the doubters to be as wrong as his playoffs predictions thus far.
Can he do it one more time?
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.