Bringing the Pain

Celtics Coach Doc Rivers hasn't had much to complain about in these Finals, but something bothered him enough to discuss it with referee Bob Delaney.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers hasn't had much to complain about in these Finals, but something bothered him enough to discuss it with referee Bob Delaney. (By Winslow Townson -- Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Monday, June 9, 2008

BOSTON There was one story in Boston more important Sunday than the heat wave that threatened to suffocate all of New England: the health of Celtics star Paul Pierce's right knee.

No extremity has been so important in these parts since Curt Schilling's ankle in 2004. Depending on whom you choose to believe, Pierce, who at one point was lowered by teammates into a wheelchair, was either the recipient of divine help from the angels or a big faker.

The great Celtic Bill Russell, just before tip-off, said that what Pierce had to do in Game 2, with everybody watching and many questioning, was simply be a Celtic and everything that means historically.

Pierce was. In the first half he was a Celtic like anybody who has worn the uniform in modern times. As good as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Dave Cowens, Cornbread Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, Paul Silas, John Havlicek. For 20-somethings who are too young to remember vintage Bird and for whom Havlicek is a sepia film clip, Pierce was the bridge, from great old Celtic to great Celtic.

In that first half Pierce hit all three of his three-pointers, had a game-high 16 points, handed out five assists, and helped force Kobe Bryant into three fouls and 4-for-10 shooting. Those who didn't understand do now.

Pierce finished with 28 points and led the Celtics to a 108-102 victory and 2-0 lead in this NBA championship series, burying the Los Angeles Lakers with his timely shooting, great defense and savvy. And to think folks wondered after Game 1 whether he'd play at all in Game 2.

Up here, where all things New York are hated, it was suggested widely that Pierce had outdone Willis Reed. Thirty-eight years ago the Knicks' captain set the bar for playing through injury against no less than Wilt Chamberlain. That didn't exactly sit well with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who played for that Knicks team.

Asked to make the Reed comparison, Jackson said: "Well, if I'm not mistaken, I think Willis Reed missed a whole half and three quarters almost of a game and literally had to have a shot, a horse shot, three or four of them in his thigh to come back out and play. Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute. I don't know if the angels visited him at halftime or in that timeout period that he had or not, but he didn't even limp when he came back out on the floor. I don't know what was going on there. Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?"

Of course, Jackson wasn't mistaken. Reed tore a muscle in his right thigh in Game 5 of the 1970 Finals against the Lakers, which his teammates then won dramatically by coming from 16 down. Reed missed Game 6, took multiple painkilling shots before Game 7, dragged his bum leg into Madison Square Garden and hit two jump shots, both over Chamberlain to jump-start the Knicks' 113-99 rout.

Pierce wriggled free from his wheelchair and came back to hit two huge three-pointers that helped the Celtics pull away in Game 1, and his reappearance after falling to the floor produced a noise not heard at the new Garden or the old since Larry Bird returned after having his face bounced off the parquet floor in a playoff game against the Indiana Pacers in 1991.

Pierce had played one-on-one aggressively with teammate Sam Cassell early in the morning at the team's shoot-around, leading Coach Doc Rivers to say, "I'm not that concerned with Paul."

Still, the Celtics were wounded by Pierce being so widely criticized for exaggerating his injury, if not outright faking. Kevin Garnett didn't bother hiding how annoyed he was with the Lakers' spin.

"It's not up to them to approve or disapprove or to judge," Garnett said. "The man got carried off the court. I mean, that's pretty significant. . . . When you don't know what's going on on the other side, you just make up stuff."

Ah, it's the stuff that can rekindle a rivalry in a hurry. If these Celtics and these Lakers grow to plain dislike one another, there will be fewer clips of Bird and Magic and more of Pierce and Bryant. That's if Bryant can find his offense sooner against a great defense, which he hasn't in the Finals. It's five mostly bad shooting nights and counting for Kobe in the Finals, first against the Pistons in 2004 and now against the Celtics. What those two have in common is suffocating defense that Kobe, great as he is, cannot seem to overcome.

Nobody dared suggest when Celtics GM Danny Ainge assembled Boston's new "Big Three" that Pierce would be the best player of the three. But he has been. Pierce doesn't have Garnett's skill set and doesn't dream of shooting the ball as effectively as Ray Allen. But Pierce has the kind of forceful personality that is required of a championship team.

It was Pierce, not KG or Allen, who scored 22 points to lead Boston past Atlanta in Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. It was Pierce who scored 41 points in a duel for the ages with LeBron James to lead the Celtics past the Cavaliers in a second Game 7. And it was Pierce who was Boston's best and most consistent player in Game 6 to eliminate the Pistons in Detroit. Even gimpy, Pierce was Boston's best player in Game 1 of the Finals, and again in Game 2. It's why New Englanders, angst ridden for no reason when it comes to their teams, had plenty of reason to worry going into Game 2 but plenty of reason to feel good going into Game 3 in Los Angeles.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company