BOSTON // Paul Pierce is heading back to his hometown, and a second NBA championship could be waiting for him there. A Los Angeles native who has played his entire career with the rival Celtics, Pierce scored 27 points to help Boston withstand 38 points from Kobe Bryant and defeat the Lakers 92-86 in the TD Garden on Sunday night, moving within one victory of an unprecedented 18th NBA title.
The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 is tonight, and a victory then or in a Game 7 on Thursday would give Pierce the chance to celebrate in the city where he grew up.
"It's going to have to happen if we're going to win the title," Pierce said. "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." Some suggest that the veteran guard who learned the game on the playgrounds of LA and was a Lakers fan in his youth is on the cusp of earning a place in the Celtics' pantheon.
"He is on the verge of the 20,000-point mark, The Boston Globe wrote. "An eight-time All-Star and the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, he could be poised to join the Mount Rushmore of Celtic greats." With the "Beat LA!" chant reverberating through the arena, Kevin Garnett scored 18 points with 10 rebounds and Rajon Rondo had 18 points, eight assists and five rebounds to help Boston become the first team in the series to win two games in succession.
If Los Angeles cannot do the same at home, the Celtics will improve to 10-2 against them in the finals, beginning with a 4-0 sweep over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959 through the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson era of the 1980s and Boston's victory in 2008. Bryant said neither the rivalry nor revenge should be motivating his teammates when they try to stave off elimination at home. "Just man up and play," he said. "What's the big deal?
"If I have to say something to them, then we don't deserve to be champions. "We're down 3-2: go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that." Bryant was the MVP of the finals last year, when the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic to win their 15th championship. But Pierce earned the honour at his expense in 2008, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in six games to win an NBA-record 17th championship.
Bryant outscored Pierce in Game 5, but the Lakers' leader got little help from his teammates. Also, the stretch during which Bryant was most dominant was also when the Celtics pulled away. "I wasn't in a personal duel," Pierce said. "I didn't notice that we were going back-and-forth scoring at the time. He's a tough player. He makes shots." Phil Jackson, the Lakers' coach, defended Bryant's takeover of the offence.
"He's the kind of guy, you ride the hot hand, that's for sure," Jackson said. "We were waiting for him to do that. He went out there and found a rhythm." Bryant did everything he could to send the Lakers home with the edge. He scored all 23 points the Lakers generated over a 14-minute period stretching from the 4:23 mark of the second quarter until 2:16 of the third. But over that span, the Celtics expanded the lead from one point to 13.
"I just tried to keep telling them, it's only two points each time he scores, it's not 10," Doc Rivers, the Celtics' coach, said. "It's just like if someone else was scoring. "I love that our guys, for the most part, they understood what he was doing. But we defended everyone else. And I thought it was big." Meanwhile, Pierce was having his best game of the series, too. The Celtics' captain scored seven points in the last three-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter and added nine more in the first five minutes of the third. Ray Allen, who hasn't hit a three-pointer since making an NBA-record eight in Game 2, made a pair of baskets that gave Boston a 71-58 lead with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
Jackson, wearing a microphone for the TV broadcast, told his players during a late timeout: "This [Celtics] team loses more games in the fourth quarter than any team in the league. They know how to lose games, and they're showing us that now."
The Lakers got within six points several times, but never within five until Bryant made three free throws to make the score 87-82 with 90 seconds left. Pierce secured the victory with a steal and an assist to make it 89-82 with 36 seconds to play.