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Winding road finally delivers Pierce to NBA Finals

DETROIT -- "It makes me think about a year ago today,'' said Paul Pierce, as late Friday turned into the morning of his dream come true.

One year ago today he was the injured star of the second-worst team in the league. He would tell me that he had been on the verge of demanding a trade out of Boston. "But you wouldn't have any control over where they might send you,'' I said.

"My career was at an alltime low,'' he said. "So I figured, how much worse could it get?''

On Saturday morning Pierce took off the baseball cap that had been placed upon his head amid the happy chaos just one hour earlier, when he was celebrating in the relative quiet of a building he had emptied by muscling in for 12 points on three shots -- three! -- in the fourth quarter. He took off the cap and looked at it to read its script: "Conference Champions.''

"I'm just happy to be in this position still with the Boston Celtics,'' he said. "To be in this position with the same team going to the Finals, it's nothing I can really put into words.''

The Celtics were trailing Detroit 70-60 with 10:29 remaining Friday when Pierce took it upon himself to avoid another loss on the road as well as another Game 7 on Sunday in Boston. How was he going to win the biggest game of his life? It was a puzzle he had been working on since he was a boy growing up in Los Angeles as a fan of the Lakers, as a star at Kansas who was disappointed to be chosen as late as No. 10 by the Celtics in the 1998 draft, as an All-Star for whom things had never completely worked out as he dreamt they should. He had emerged as the best Celtic to arrive since the end of the Bird dynasty, and he will probably retire as the No. 2 scorer in the history of the franchise (behind John Havlicek, who happened to be here to present the conference championship trophy), but he had won only three playoff series over his career as he contemplated a demand to be traded following the Celtics' 24-win season one year ago today.

He knew the luck of the Celtics was changing his way when Ray Allen and then Kevin Garnett were traded to join him in Boston. James Posey was signed, defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau was hired, and Pierce -- now past the midway point of his NBA career, with just a few years of basketball left in him -- began to reinvent himself as a fullcourt player. The Celtics led the league in defense this season, and during the playoffs Pierce redefined himself by defending the bigger, stronger and younger LeBron James and then scoring 41 points in their Game 7 duel to advance to this round.

Now in the fourth quarter of Game 6 Friday against the Pistons, Pierce decided to go for it. "I wanted to keep my poise,'' he said. "We kept our composure, we got the ball to the right people, we knocked down shots. My teammates did a great job of looking for me when I got in position to score, and without these guys where would I be?''

There were times this year when Pierce looked around the court and couldn't believe he was sharing the ball with Garnett and Allen, that the (relatively) new Boston Garden was filled every night and that the Celtics were the winningest team in the league. There were times when he realized he was playing the best defense of his career, and times when he and his teammates worried about maintaining the balance between them rather than simply going for it. All of those times made this one possible Friday.

He started driving to the basket relentlessly. He drove into a double-team and pulled up to hit Kendrick Perkins backdoor for a dunk and a three-play that brought the Celtics within 70-65. He drew successive fouls to put the Pistons into the penalty with 7:35 remaining, and then he collected on those penalties one free throw at a time. From the right side he drove into the keytop, spun 360 degrees down the lane and reversed to the other side for a layup and a three-point play that gave Boston a 75-74 lead that Detroit would never overcome. Rajon Rondo deflected a frontcourt pass from Rasheed Wallace and Pierce turned it into a 19-foot jumper at the other end, a dramatic change of pace as he backpedaled away to the defensive end.

With 4:11 left and the lifelong trend of Pierce's long, wandering career suddenly emerging within his reach, a single fan dressed in Pistons blue sitting near the Celtics bench began a chant: "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!''

Moments after Pierce had finished off the 89-81 victory with a team-leading 27 points, he would embrace coach Doc Rivers, with whom he had been feuding three years ago. "He said he loved me,'' said Rivers of that moment on the floor with his prodigal scorer Friday night. "And then he said, 'Thank you for sticking with me.' And I was thinking, 'Me with you!' I was thinking (it should be) the other way around.''

For all of Pierce's 10 years in Boston he has been, in the Celtic championship tradition, an outsider: The guy from Los Angeles who scored but didn't win. Now he is the star who wins by defending, the scorer who scores when most needed.

And now, of all things, an NBA Finals against his hometown Lakers, a reincarnation of the challenge that has defined everyone from Bill Russell to Havlicek to Bird. Now he has earned his shot at it.

"That's what got me started in basketball, growing up in Los Angeles, watching the Lakers and the Celtics,'' he said. "It's ironic, just being a Celtic; growing up, now you're playing against the Lakers in the Finals. As a kid I hated the Celtics. I'm going back home to play against my team that I grew up watching.

"It's a dream come true. That rivalry revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I'm a part of it.''

After all of these years he has forced his way in.

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