Tuesday June 10th, 2008

For the most part, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce traveled in separate circles on Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at TD Banknorth Garden. (Motto: We may be named after a financial institution, but we still have parquet!) They matched up more frequently in last Thursday's Game 1, two streamlined sumos fighting for position in their dohyo just above the free throw line. But now, with just 25 seconds remaining and the Boston Celtics clinging to a two-point lead that had stood at 24 only seven minutes earlier, Bryant was the one called on to defend Pierce, who held the ball at the top of the key.

Implicit in each Bryant-Pierce minibattle is another struggle, a crusade to win the hearts and minds of NBA fans -- nothing less than parallel campaigns for redemption. The Los Angeles Lakers' Bryant is already recognized as the best player of his generation, but he wants a CSS (Championship Sans Shaq) that would, in his mind, cap the rehabilitation of an image that has taken more blows than a piñata. For his part, the Celtics' sometimes petulant Pierce longs for a title that would enable him to approach the elite status of Bryant as well as divest himself of some of the baggage that he has accrued during a 10-year career in Boston. Mistakes? I've made a few, Pierce will allow, an admission that comes far more reluctantly from Bryant.

Pierce dribbled left and barreled into the lane, the manner in which he usually attacks the hoop. Bryant was on his hip but needed help, which three Lakers provided. One of them, guard Derek Fisher, hit Pierce across the forearm and was called for a foul. Pierce not only made both free throws, but he also clinched the victory at the other end by blocking Sasha Vujacic's three-point attempt, grazing the ball with the fingertips of his left hand. Two James Posey foul shots put the final margin at 108-102, Boston's second straight home win over Los Angeles, which was favored in most quarters to win the series.

Whichever star travels farthest on his road to redemption may well be the difference in a championship series that has conjured up more 1980s history than a documentary on Ronald Reagan. As of Sunday night it was advantage Pierce, his dramatic (Lakers coach Phil Jackson repeatedly suggested overdramatic) third-quarter return to the court from a right-knee sprain having sparked the Celtics to a 98-88 victory in Game 1. Wearing a support sleeve but showing no other signs of distress ("I didn't really think about the injury, because once I step on the court it pretty much goes out the window"), he scored 28 points on Sunday, only two fewer than Bryant, and on 16 shots to Kobe's 23.

Bryant was the bright light of an otherwise listless L.A. performance -- though not as bright as he usually is. Perhaps sensing that most of the Lakers are Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, Jackson had put Game 2 on Bryant's shoulders, recalling his 9-for-26 shooting in the Game 1 loss. "He usually doesn't have two games in a row that are bad," Jackson said before Game 2. "Kobe comes back and plays better. So we anticipate that's going to be a pattern." Well, Bryant really didn't play better on Sunday, not until the fourth quarter, when he scored 13 of his 30 points.

There are others, of course, who figure in this struggle for redemption, not the least of whom is Celtics big man Kevin Garnett, famously recognized as a postseason failure during his 12 seasons in Minnesota. In Games 1 and 2 Garnett was a rock, averaging 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, drifting around the edges of the offense but always delivering when called upon, and protecting the paint in his unselfish and vigilant way. There is shooting guard Ray Allen, the sometimes forgotten member of the Celtics' Big Three, another All-Star who in 12 previous seasons had never advanced this far in the playoffs. Like Garnett, Allen was steady, providing 18 points a game and the primary defensive pressure on Bryant. And for that matter, a championship would also redeem coach Doc Rivers, whose acumen has been doubted by a large contingent of Boston fans for four seasons, including this one, in which his team won a league-leading 66 games.

But there is redemption and there is redemption, and it is Bryant and Pierce, in their Promethean struggles with the only NBA teams for which they've played, who need it most. As the series moved to L.A. for Games 3, 4 and 5, it was clearly on Bryant to get his team moving. He was extremely animated in timeout huddles on Sunday, even when the Lakers were down by 20. What did he say? "Get our beep in gear," said Bryant, using beep instead of bleep. "Play beep harder, a bunch of other beeps. It was beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Eddie Murphy Raw times 10."

At the same time, it was incumbent upon Pierce to keep his foot on the gas against a team that had won all eight of its playoff games at Staples Center. The Celtics' captain had much assistance in Boston, including an improbable 21 points on Sunday from a backup backup frontcourtman named Leon Powe (pronounced POE). Jackson called him Pow, probably deliberately, to call attention to the disparity between Powe's free throw total (13 in his 15 minutes) and L.A.'s (10 for the game). The Lakers will likely say nevermore to such a Powe performance at Staples, so Pierce will need to gear up his act on the road, where it will no doubt be suggested that his knee injury is, well, something you'd see in Hollywood.

It was about a year ago that Bryant and Pierce, their teams long forgotten (the Lakers had lost in the first round of the playoffs and the Celtics didn't even make the postseason, both for the second straight year), began comparing notes when they ran into each other during pickup games at UCLA. "We talked about a lot of things," Bryant said last week. "We talked about who was getting traded first. I guess that's one thing I'm happy I didn't win." Pierce, who could envision a bleak future as, say, a Los Angeles Clipper, agrees. "I remember us saying that neither one thought we'd be back with our team," says Pierce, who grew up in Inglewood and returns to his Southern California roots in the off-season. "He felt strongly about moving on from the Lakers, and I felt the same way with Boston. So it's kind of ironic that we're in this position on the same teams playing each other for a championship."

The redemption quest for Pierce is more desperate than it is for Bryant. The Lakers star has three rings, even if they were earned alongside Shaquille O'Neal, and is a surefire Hall of Famer. Pierce, on the other hand, had played in just one conference finals (in 2002) before this season and waits, impatiently, just outside the velvet ropes of superstardom. He has never been as airily haughty in the public eye as Kobe. When Bryant was asked last week why so many of his teammates wear his signature sneakers (Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and D.J. Mbenga lace up the new Hyperdunk, while Ronny Turiaf favors the older Zoom Kobe III), he had the chance to muster up at least some wink-of-the-eye humility. We're all just waiting for Ronny to get his own shoe, he might've said. Instead, Bryant lapsed into Nike-speak, referring to his famous viral video clip. "They all have an interest in jumping over cars," he said. "It intrigues them, so they wear the shoes." That is Bryant, take him or leave him, the latter being what much of America -- aside from L.A., where Kobe-adoration knows no bounds -- chooses to do. His hunt for redemption is very real, but he does not ask for our blessing or approval along the way.

Bryant glides through life. Pierce claws. The Celtics' swingman has not been pilloried to the degree that Bryant has, but then Pierce has not publicly erred on such a manifest scale as Bryant did when he found himself accused of rape in 2003. (The charge was dropped.) Pierce was clearly the victim when he was stabbed nearly a dozen times in a Boston nightclub in September '00. Still, Pierce has had his moments, which he collectively calls "the dumb stuff I did." For much of his early career he affixed a scowl to his face, suggesting that this child's game for which he was handsomely compensated brought about as much pleasure as dealing with a duodenal ulcer. He played angry as well, bulling his way to the basket and flailing his arms wildly to get a foul call, the American version of the European flop. (Though his game has become much more refined, he still does that from time to time.) He came across as the emblem of the self-centered American player when, as the team's top scorer, he "led" the United States to a sixth-place finish in the '02 world championships in Indianapolis, alienating teammates and coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich. And who could forget when he showed up at a press conference after the Celtics' Game 6 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the '05 playoffs with his head wrapped in bandages, to protest a foul that he thought should have been called.

Then, too, not all of the dumb stuff is so far in the past. It was only last season that he presented himself as "the classic case of a great player on a bad team," thereby creating a two-caste system, just as Bryant would do last spring with his comments about his lack of a supporting cast and his trade demand. And in the first round of this postseason Pierce was fined $25,000 for flashing what league officials considered to be a "menacing gesture" toward the Atlanta Hawks' bench. Last week Pierce acknowledged to Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe that it "can be" a gang sign but added that "anything can be a gang gesture. It's whatever you interpret it as. I interpret it as something different, where a gang member is going to interpret it as a gang symbol." Welcome to the Spin Room.

Also still open to interpretation is the knee injury Pierce suffered in the third quarter of Game 1, when teammate Kendrick Perkins fell into his leg. Pierce's face was contorted in pain as he was carried off the court by teammates Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine, then deposited in a wheelchair. That was followed by his skip-the-light-fantastic return three minutes later. "You know, I think God just sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right,' " Pierce said after the game. " 'You need to get back out there. Show them what you've got.' "

That served as a nice setup line for Jackson, who was asked between Games 1 and 2 to compare Pierce's return with Willis Reed's dramatic hobble out of a Madison Square Garden locker room before Game 7 of the 1970 Finals between Jackson's New York Knicks and the Lakers. "[Reed] had to have a shot, a horse shot, three or four of them in his thigh to come back out and play," said Jackson, who lives for such moments when his wry wit can be sufficiently engaged. "Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute. I don't know if the angels visited him at halftime ... but he didn't even limp when he came back out on the floor. ... Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?"

Pierce could laugh that off on Sunday night. While Bryant, head down, had already turned away from the action and was heading toward the locker room when the Game 2 buzzer sounded, Pierce did a couple of on-court interviews and then, arms raised in triumph, skipped toward the tunnel that leads to the Celtics' locker room. While the path to redemption will be far more difficult to negotiate in L.A., on Sunday night at least there were only joyous supporters lining his way.

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