BOSTON -- By his standards, Paul Pierce had a ragged season. He injured his right knee, his left foot and his right thumb. He played hurt, played poorly and, for stretches, did not play much at all. He was shut down in the Eastern Conference semifinals, smothered by LeBron James, and he re-emerged in the conference finals, freed by Vince Carter. When the NBA Finals began, he was as much a wild card as the guy who was tabbed to defend him, Ron Artest. But two days before Game 1, in a practice at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, Celtics coach Doc Rivers issued a warning to anybody who was sleeping on his best scorer: "We don't think that's very smart," he said.
Through the first four games of this series, it seemed that Rivers had been overly optimistic. Artest won every individual matchup with Pierce, allowing him to reach 20 points only once, in a Laker blowout. But in Game 5, Pierce turned the clock back to 2008, when he and Kobe Bryant dueled for Finals MVP. Then, as now, Pierce came out on top. He scored 27 points on Sunday night at TD Garden, not as many as Bryant, but enough to give the Celtics a 92-86 win over the Lakers and a 3-2 series lead.
The Lakers have spent two years trying to put the memories of '08 behind them, and now they are all resurfacing at once: Pierce making his step-back jumpers, Kevin Garnett pushing Pau Gasol around the paint, Bryant charging into triple-coverage with little help from his teammates. The Lakers must wonder if elimination is soon to follow. Two years ago, they were knocked out in Game 6 by 39 points, and again they have been pushed to the brink with Game 6 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Granted, the Lakers will be on their home court for the duration of the series, but as Celtics guard Rajon Rondo pointed out: "We play better on the road anyway."
The Celtics proved in Game 2 that they could win at Staples, after which Pierce was caught on camera telling the crowd that and his teammates would not be coming back. Pierce will return to L.A. after all, except he's making the trip on his terms. For the first time in the Finals, he looks comfortable, scoring on isolation plays and pick-and-rolls, shooting over Artest and blowing past him. When Bryant could not miss in the middle of the game -- he scored 23 points in a row for the Lakers over 14 minutes -- Pierce scored 18 in the same span. He was not trying to get personal, but he allowed the Celtics to expand their lead in the face of Bryant's surge.
Rivers warned the Celtics they would have to withstand one transcendent performance from Bryant, and this might have been it. Bryant finished with 38 points, but as in '08, the other Lakers spent too much time standing around with their mouths open. The only other player in double-figures was Gasol, who went just 5 of 12 from the field, choosing an inopportune time to soften up. It is clear the Lakers can no longer count on center Andrew Bynum, who had only one rebound in 31 minutes, and appeared to aggravate his injured knee on a first-quarter dunk. To win the title, Gasol and Odom will have to hold their ground against Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, which they failed to do two years ago and failed to do Sunday night.
The onus also falls on Artest, signed over the summer to guard players just like Pierce in situations just like this. Artest and Pierce have had many confrontations over the years, dating back to those classic Pacers-Celtics series in the early to mid 2000s; and at first, Pierce struggled terribly. Artest would push him out to the 3-point line, never allowing him to catch the ball where he wanted, forcing him to post up 20 feet from the basket. Even when Pierce did get the ball, Artest would often strip him as he started his dribble.
But according to a former Celtics assistant coach, Pierce gradually learned how to attack Artest. He became more aggressive getting to his spot. He held the ball more securely on the drive. And most important, he recognized that he was quicker than Artest and could get around him with a sudden first step. "You saw it start to change," the coach said. Pierce was so effective against Artest on Sunday that at one point Bryant even asked to switch defensive assignments. The Lakers stuck with Artest, but for the first time in these Finals, he was soundly beaten.
Artest also missed two crucial free throws in the final minute, which could have cut the Lakers' deficit to three points. Instead, the Celtics took the ball out of bounds and Garnett lofted a long pass to Pierce down the sideline. With Derek Fisher jumping in front of him, Pierce went high to make the catch, and as he was about to fall out of bounds, whipped a cross-court pass to a streaking Rondo for a layup that clinched the game. "I was showing off my Randy Moss and my Tom Brady in one play," Pierce said.
Not long ago, the Big Three were as big in Boston as Brady and Moss, but for much of this season, they showed their wear. In every game of the Finals, one of them contributed and the other two did not. In Game 5, they all appeared together, combining for 57 points and showing they have one more championship push left in them. They are heading back to L.A., needing only a game, knowing from experience that they can get it.