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Pierce fought fire with desire

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 14, 2010

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Heavily criticized, unwilling to credit Ron Artest for his defensive prowess, and seemingly lacking confidence, Paul Pierce looked as if he aged 10 years in the first three games of the NBA Finals. He passed up elbow jumpers. Complained too often about fouls and in one sequence found himself so open on an 18-footer he hit the backboard.

Pierce has lived many lives in Boston. He has made more comebacks than Tina Turner. He has been scrutinized, lauded, and even dismissed. Pierce’s legacy in Boston is loaded with superlatives and he added another several adjectives with his performance last night in the Celtics’ 92-86 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

He didn’t wait until the fourth quarter to warm up. He didn’t save his best for last. From the beginning, Pierce provided the desperate spark his team needed. The Celtics were afraid of going back to Los Angeles down, three games to two, and needed energy from the beginning.

Pierce seized another special moment, scoring 26 points in the first three quarters as the Celtics controlled the game. In the fourth quarter, it won’t be Pierce’s 1 point that will be recalled in Celtics’ annals — it will be the stunning save of a Kevin Garnett inbounds pass near the sideline and flip to Rajon Rondo for a reverse layup, giving his team a 7-point lead with 35.2 left.

That was Pierce’s biggest contribution. The Celtics were toying with danger, going more than three minutes without a point and allowing Los Angeles to tally 7 straight to draw within 5. Kobe Bryant was salivating for his opportunity to steal the victory, but Pierce found a way to outstage him, delivering one of those intangible plays that has littered Celtics’ history.

In the past two Celtics’ victories, each being a must-win, Pierce converted 19 of 33 shots for 46 points after scoring 49 in the first three games. Now, he has put himself in position to do something very few players have the opportunity to accomplish; win an NBA title in his hometown.

He has two chances to cement himself as the boogeyman, a bugaboo in Los Angeles each time he steps off the plane at LAX. It will require another special performance, another somewhat selfish night in which he demands the ball and gets visibly furious at his teammates when he doesn’t get the ball in his sweet spot.

Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes Pierce needs to be a jerk when he is hot. He can’t always be a team player and distribute the ball, not when the elbow jumper is falling, not when he takes his burly body and dives into the chests of defenders to create space and drains those 17-footers.

“Well, you know, Paul is a very deliberate ballplayer, and when he’s comfortable out there, he can be very difficult to guard,’’ Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He’s got a step-back, he’s got a nice shot that he takes off the dribble. His post-up game is good. There’s a lot of things that he has as weapons out there. He had Ron guessing out there for much of the game.’’

After hearing for nearly a week that Artest was getting the best of him, forcing him into a passer and rebounder, Pierce responded with a sizzling performance that befuddled the Lakers defense as the Big Four produced 75 of Boston’s 92 points.

And when the Lakers used a brilliant third-quarter stretch by Kobe Bryant (19 consecutive points in 7 minutes 7 seconds), Pierce countered with 11 to help Boston increase its lead. He maintains he wants no part of a duel with Bryant, a player he has been compared with during his career, but his actions spoke differently.

“I haven’t really been frustrated with my offense in this series truthfully,’’ he said. “Today Coach [Doc Rivers] just put me in more pick-and-roll, I think. I was given more opportunity. If you have a chance to watch our team, we’re not a team that goes out and highlights one player where he gets all the shots, scores all the points.

“We run more of an equal-opportunity offense so if a guy gets going, then we’ll go to him a little bit more, and I just think that was the case today. He saw I made a few shots, they went to me a little bit more.’’

After 12 years, Pierce’s legacy in Boston is still unfinished. There are images of an aging Bill Russell brought to tears by Jack Twyman’s question following the 1969 NBA Finals win as he sat in the Inglewood Forum’s visiting locker room. Russell couldn’t explain the feeling of winning the title in his final game. His sweat was mixed with tears. Pierce could be headed for one of those moments. He needs one more sparkling effort, a few more elbow jumpers, and perhaps one of those intangible plays.

“No, it hasn’t crossed me the last 30 minutes, but it’s going to have to happen if we’re going to win the title,’’ he said about winning in Los Angeles. ‘I mean, that would be great. I’m not going to try to jinx it right now. We’ve got to win one game, that’s the goal. But it would be amazing if we get it done.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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