"He rejuvenated us," said
The story of these playoffs for the Celtics has been Pierce's growth from a scorer to a leader. It has been a painful transformation for him, and difficult to watch at times as he has gone between settling for threes to driving relentlessly to the basket.
Then came a new fear, a new opportunity. With 6:49 left in the third quarter Thursday, 280-pound teammate
He was carried off by his teammates into the locker room.
"All I felt was pain when I grabbed it," Pierce said of his knee. "A lot of things going through my mind. I thought I tore something. Once I heard the pop, and I couldn't move it at first, I thought that was it."
These are the kinds of stories they tell about Larry Bird in Boston, the kind that drove
It was that kind of legend that had been held against Pierce throughout these 10 years in Boston. He has been the best Celtic to come along since Bird, and he will probably retire as a greater scorer than Bird, but what had he done to remind the fans in Boston of Bird? This was where Pitino always got it wrong during his short hapless era in charge: The goal was never to make the people forget about Bird, but to remind them of what he did.
In the locker room as the third quarter went forth without him, Pierce tried to stand on his right leg. He could hear the crowd bellowing through the walls as he leaned his full weight on his right foot. He could withstand the weight, and he was able to absorb the pain of shifting from side to side. "I was like, man, it can't be over like this," he said. He was surprised. It wasn't.
With 5:22 remaining in the quarter, less than two minutes of game time since he had been carried off, his teammates looked up to an unexpected roar and the raising of fists like goosebumps by the thousands. On the scoreboard was live video of Pierce half-jogging out of the locker room tunnel and onto the floor. Larry Bird in his green headband and freckles.
A short pause in front of Rivers -- "let me get out there, see how I feel" -- and then Pierce was checking back into the game, hopping like a fighter in his corner before the horn sounded. It sounded like the old Garden as he absorbed a loose elbow from Bryant reaching to strip the ball. They were cheering on his misery after he rubbed his temple before making one of his free throws. They were begging him to tell the story they'd heard and seen so many times before.
What helped define Bird so dramatically was the length of his three-point shot, a conceit that had not existed for previous Celtic champions. He would let go of the shot, his knees turned sideways, looking over his right shoulder, and the longest gasp would precede the din. Now, after a
And then, the very next time down, he pulled up again from the same place. Another three.
Afterwards there would be comparisons to
But now he was responding to that challenge. His successive threes had given the Celtics a 75-71 lead. He had begun the third quarter by scoring the Celtics' first eight points after halftime to turn a five-point deficit into a one-point advantage. After a meek start of three points and three fouls in the first half, he had driven the Celtics to outscore the favored Lakers 52-37 over the final two quarters as Pierce went 6-for-6 with the scare of a season-ending knee injury in between. Overall he scored 22 efficient points on 10 shots in 31 minutes.
Now the hardest part is still to come. Pierce knows that Bryant also is held to the standards of
Will he be able to play the rest of the series? "We'll see," he said. "It's in pain. I was able to get through tonight, I don't know if it was adrenaline or what, but I got through it."
This legend-making is not as easy as they make it look on television. As Garnett answered other questions beside him, Pierce stared out blankly, feeling the throb of pain in his knee and envisioning the six games ahead. He pushed himself up from his chair and hopped down the stairs. This might turn out to be the greatest night of his career. It was horrible.