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Magic: Pierce is close, but Bryant still best

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / November 18, 2008
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With an assist from new technology, Magic Johnson "stopped by" a downtown Boston office building last Friday for a Cisco TelePresence event, where he talked about basketball and business ventures.

Appearing via video screen from Los Angeles courtesy of a high-tech system that allowed him to make virtual eye contact with reporters in Boston, Johnson was asked whether 2008 NBA Finals MVP Paul Pierce was the best player in the league right now. Johnson praised the Celtics forward but sided with the Lakers' reigning league MVP, Kobe Bryant. Johnson measured both players by the consistency of their accomplishments, unwilling to give Pierce's play last week more weight.

"Paul would like to think he's better than Kobe," said Johnson with a hearty laugh. "But Kobe Bryant is the best closer in the game. He's the best player in the game. You have to remember he's done it for a long time at a high level.

"Now, was Paul Pierce better than Kobe in the Finals? Of course, he was better than everybody in the whole playoffs. Is he one of the top three or four players in the league right now, Paul Pierce? Of course he is. It's hard to find a guy who can go inside and outside and also a guy who can put it on the floor, then make plays for other people.

"Yes, I think he's right up there with Kobe, right up there with LeBron [James]. It's hard to pick one of those three guys.

"I'm not biased. I'm going to tell it like it is. Kobe Bryant has won three championships for a reason. Shaq [O'Neal] got us to the fourth quarter, but always Kobe Bryant closed the deal. We have to remember that.

"There's nothing biased. If Paul was the best player in the league, I would say it. But he's right there as one of the best. No question about it."

But is Bryant really the best closer in the game right now? It was pointed out to Johnson that Pierce scored 22 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter for a win over the Raptors last Monday night and hit a buzzer-beater to hand the Hawks their first loss Wednesday at the Garden, but Johnson could not be swayed.

"Kobe Bryant is the best player," said Johnson, pausing after each word for emphasis and smiling broadly. "Paul is right there. They're right there together. You can't lose. If you decide to take Paul, you're not going to lose. If you decide to take Kobe, you're not going to lose.

"But to me, when I see a guy who's been to the Finals that many times and done it over and over and over again, there's no denying that. The guy's won three titles in a row, you can't deny that.

"Now, if Paul keeps doing it, hey, he can be. And that's my little brother, too. [Paul] and Baron [Davis]. I love both them. Keep it going, Paul."

Johnson, as a Lakers vice president and part-owner, wants Pierce to keep it going because, like the rest of the league, he knows the value of a resurrected Lakers-Celtics rivalry.

"It's great for the league, because if you think about it, there are probably three teams that have the most fans," said Johnson. "Boston probably has one of the biggest followings in all of sports and definitely in the NBA. The Lakers are the world's team. They have the biggest following around the world. Then, you think the Knicks. If we can get the Knicks back, the league will really be booming.

"If you think about those franchises, and now with two of the three being really at the forefront of the league - and it looks like the Knicks are doing a lot better right now - the league is back.

"It can't be about players as much as it is about rivalries. What people buy into is really the rivalry. With Boston and LA playing again this past season for the championship, you saw a lot of fans that used to watch the NBA, who had stopped watching, come back.

"Now, with them both being still the two best teams in the league, it's done wonders for the league and the ratings. People who stopped watching are now interested again. Then, the new fans who said, 'Oh, wow, I like Kobe' or 'I like Kevin Garnett' or 'I like Paul Pierce,' they are still there.

"We're right where we want to be. And we're hoping that the Knicks get better."

Spoken like a true Los Angeles-based businessman.

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