- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- He had 27 points. In the latest, most critical game of the NBA Finals, Paul Pierce seemed to be channeling his inner 2008 NBA Finals MVP.
But as important as the points were, two plays in the final minute -- neither one involving a shot -- spoke directly to the overall impact Pierce had on the Celtics' 92-86 Game 5 victory Sunday, a victory that puts them on the precipice of another title.
Pierce had not scored a point in the fourth quarter and the Lakers were in the process of rallying from a 13-point deficit when the first big play occurred. The Celtics led 87-82 when Ron Artest stepped to the line with 43.3 seconds left. He missed the first. He then missed the second as well.
Out of nowhere appeared Kobe Bryant, getting his hands on the rebound, along with Kevin Garnett and Pierce. A scramble ensued, the ball squirted hither and yon, and Pierce ended up with it, physically wrestling the ball from Bryant. The Lakers' star screamed in vain for a foul. The Celtics kept the ball and called a timeout. It was a huge possession.
"I just saw the ball in front of me and I wanted to go at it as hard as I could,'' Pierce said. "I saw a rebound. I thought Kevin had it and then the ball was in front of me and I wanted to aggressively grab it. And I was able to do that and get a timeout before the ball went out of bounds or they fouled me."
Then, out of the timeout, Garnett lobbed a long pass to Pierce, who hauled it in with Derek Fisher draped all over him. Then, as he landed, awkwardly and off-balance, Pierce rifled a cross-court pass to a streaking Rajon Rondo, who clinched the game with a layup.
"I was just showing off my Randy Moss and my Tom Brady -- in one play,'' Pierce said matter-of-factly. Going up to catch it, I then went to my Brady mode when I was falling out of bounds to find Rondo on the receiving end."
Said Doc Rivers, "Paul has said for years that he could play for the Patriots. Maybe we might have to believe him."
Pierce was one of many Celtics heroes in their TD Garden finale of the 2009-10 season. Garnett came up big again (18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks), further distancing himself from his Mikki Moore-like play in Games 1 and 2. Rondo was back to his whirling-dervish ways (18 points, 8 assists), although he also seemed intent on setting a record for turnovers. He ended up with 7. It seemed like 70.
And then there was the captain. At the time the Celtics need him most, Pierce is answering the call. In the last two games, he has averaged 23 points on 57.6 percent shooting after averaging 16.3 points on 36.1 percent shooting in the first three games, one of which deserves an asterisk for 'referee intrusion.' His Sunday submission was his highest output of the series.
"He was terrific,'' Rivers said of Pierce. "He attacked all night. He did it through the offense. He did it through [isolations]. He did it in pick and rolls. He made big shots for us. He has a great rhythm now and we need it."
As was the case in Game 4, the Celtics went to Pierce out of the gate and he responded. He had 8 points in the first quarter and added 5 more in the second quarter. He might have had another two (or three) had he not inexplicably walked off the court as the Celtics were in their final possession. He thought Rondo was going to go solo, which has been a consistent, if ineffective, play of late. Rondo was hoping to get the ball to Pierce, only to see the back side of his target as the clock wound down. Nothing came of the possession, except for a rough exchange between Pierce and Rondo on their way to the locker room.
"It was nothing,'' Pierce said, then proceeded to explain the nothingness of the play. "I had a couple of buckets and I wanted the ball. And he wanted to do something different. I was a little upset at that. But he's our point guard and I trust him. … We've got spats all the time with our team. But we always clean it up. I was mad, but I told him in the locker room, 'Don't sweat it.' ''
Just to clarify the Celtics' intention on that possession, Rivers said, "we want the ball in Paul's hands at the end of quarters if we can, because we haven't been very good ending quarters as of late. When Rondo gets it, it's 'get away and let Rondo go.' That's what he [Pierce] thought Rondo was doing. Rondo thought Paul was coming back. That's our team."
Whatever ill will there may have been disappeared by the time the third quarter began. Pierce saved his best, helping the Celtics withstand a Bryant tsunami. He knocked down a 3-pointer, his second of the game, to give the Celtics their first double-digit lead of the game (50-39.) He added nine more in the period, including six in a row to answer Bryant, who scored 19 straight in the quarter.
He seemed to be every bit as comfortable and confident, if not as productive, as Bryant.
"I wasn't in [a] personal duel with him,'' Pierce said of the scoring barrage in the third. "I'm out there trying to help my team win. Kobe is doing what he does for his club. He has to score night in and night out."
He's not going to out-Kobe Kobe. He can't. But unlike Kobe, Pierce has had productive sidekicks these last two games to go along with his own, ever-improving play. As LA coach Phil Jackson noted, "When he [Pierce] is comfortable out there, he can be very difficult to guard. There's a lot of things he has as weapons out there."
And, as he showed Sunday night, he can also make a dramatic statement or two without scoring or even shooting.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
Beyond his 27 points, Celtics captain Paul Pierce leads the way with aggressive play in Game 5.