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Pierce gets his defining moment

BOSTON -- Larry Bird did come walking through that door after all. He had changed size, shape and color, but the changes were incidental. His name was Paul Pierce, and he was turning into something larger, something memorable.

"He rejuvenated us," said Kevin Garnett after the Celtics' 98-88 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. "He gave everybody life."

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 Kendrick Perkins landed on Pierce's right foot as Pierce was swiveling in his defense against Kobe Bryant. Pierce heard his knee pop. He curled in pain throughout the ensuing timeout as the audience stood murmuring quietly around him. It was the sound of a cathedral before a funeral.

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 Rick Pitino to distraction. There was the time in the 1991 playoffs against the Indiana Pacers when Bird hit the floor face-first. He lay still for a dreadful time and was taken to the locker room as the Celtics looked dead. A long while later, but just in time, he came running back onto the floor as if to the theme of an Indiana Jones movie. The Celtics won that Game 5 and the series, but it was the drama that defined Bird.

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.

Just as John Havlicek brought back memories of Bill Russell, and Bird recalled the greatness of Havlicek, so has Pierce steadily been rewriting in his own voice and hand the legend now two decades old. Having outdueled LeBron James in a Game 7 last month, and having seized the decisive fourth quarter to finish off the Pistons last week, he had this opportunity thrust upon him of a kind he never would want.

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.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers was among the majority to assume that Pierce had suffered a serious injury. "I was surprised," said Ray Allen, who hit a big three during Pierce's short absence. "The way he was carried off, it seemed like he was done for the game. And then he came running back on the floor and it was a great feeling."

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 Lamar Odom drive had been snuffed defensively at the basket, it became suddenly obvious to his city of 10 years that Pierce has much the same posture and address as Bird before launching a home run. He always has had it, they had just never noticed before. The anticipation was exactly the same as it used to be as he pulled up at the arc and let spin a three that clanged inside the rim on its way down.

And then, the very next time down, he pulled up again from the same place. Another three.

Afterwards there would be comparisons to Willis Reed's brief but inspirational recovery from a knee injury to help the Knicks win a championship in New York almost four decades ago. The analogy will mean nothing to Pierce. The ghost of Willis Reed has never demanded anything from him. His entire professional career has been about living up to the legend he grew up despising when he was a boy playing basketball in Inglewood, Calif., nearby the Fabulous Forum. In those days Pierce never wanted anything to do with being held to Bird's standard.

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 Magic Johnson and Jerry West, and that after his 9-of-26 (24 points) performance he will be hungry to avenge himself by winning Game 2. Pierce also knows that all of his remarkable work Thursday will mean little if the Celtics fail to win these Finals. He must finish the trend that the others before him started by adding to the 16 banners that dangle sharply over his head every time he plays in Boston.

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.

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