For the most part,
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
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
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
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
But there is redemption and there is
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
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 (
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
Also still open to interpretation is the knee injury Pierce suffered in the third quarter of Game 1, when teammate
That served as a nice setup line for Jackson, who was asked between Games 1 and 2 to compare Pierce's return with
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.