BOSTON — On a night when the two most decorated franchises in basketball history squared off with control of the NBA Finals hanging in the balance, the last two NBA Finals MVPs took center stage and dueled to the death in Game 5 at the TD Garden.
If you look at the stat sheet, Kobe Bryant won the battle, finishing with 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting, carrying the Lakers in a virtual must-win Game 5 in Boston. Paul Pierce finished with a mere 27. But Pierce stepped up and led his Celtics to victory on their home floor, coming up with every clutch play his team needed. Thanks to their captain, the Celtics are winning the war.
"I just wanted to be aggressive from the jump," Pierce said. "Coach [Doc Rivers] came out and ran the first play for me. I came off the pick‑and‑roll, got a nice look and just wanted to continue throughout the rest of the game. My teammates did a good job of finding me open, setting picks. But it was all in the team flow, and it was great."
Ever since Game 1, a week and a half ago out in Los Angeles, Pierce had struggled to make himself a dominating force offensively. He shot horrendously in Game 2, going 2-for-11 and never attempting a 3; he was hampered by foul trouble in Game 3 and never found a rhythm; and in Game 4, he had a decent 19-point effort but wasn't the same world-beating scorer he was back in 2008.
Right when his team needed him most, Pierce kicked things up a notch for Game 5.
"The same mindset — just come out and attack," he said. "The thing about me, when I step on this court, NBA Finals, I don't want to have no regrets at the end of the series. Whatever I do, I want to be aggressive with the ball, go out and play as hard as I can for 48 minutes. That's what I'm trying to do to finish out this series."
Things really got heated in the third quarter. The Celtics had taken a six-point lead into the locker room at the break, and Kobe came out after halftime on a mission. He took it upon himself to carry the Lakers all the way back, and he almost did.
The Laker leader had 19 points in the quarter, making shot after shot after shot to keep his team alive. But Pierce answered right back, first connecting on a corner 3 and later knocking down three straight shots to keep the Celtics back in front. He finished the quarter with 11 of his own.
"I wasn't in a personal duel with him," Pierce said. "I really didn't even notice that we were going back and forth at the time. I was just there trying to help my ballclub to win. Kobe is doing what he does for his ballclub. He has to score the ball night in and night out. That's about it, man. I mean, he's a great player. He makes tough shots, and he's a proven winner. But I'm not in the one‑on‑one deal with Kobe at all."
Kobe was making flashy plays, jaw-dropping shots on seemingly every single possession. When he would drive, it looked impossible to keep in front of him. When he would fade away and shoot, it looked impossible to contest. Kobe was a man possessed, and Pierce just did whatever he could to keep up.
"Those were the the toughest shots that I've ever seen somebody hit while I was on the court," Pierce said. "He was shooting fade-away threes, fadeaway jumpers off the double-team. You knew he was going to come out and be aggressive and try to carry his team. He's a heck of a player. You've got to expect that from him."
We all expected it. The "Kobe takeover game" is inevitable in any playoff series with the Lakers — Bryant is the ultimate competitor, and he's always going to want the ball in his hands when it matters. Kobe's going to go off — and only the best teams can withstand it and win.
The Celtics did just that.
They had the mental toughness and the playmaking ability to hold on for the win, and the captain was the driving force.
Now is the time for Paul Pierce to work on his legacy. He's already got one Finals MVP trophy on his mantel; the coming days will determine whether he captures a second.
You could see Pierce's hunger on Sunday night. He wanted this win more than anyone, as evidenced by his grabbing the ball away from Bryant in the fourth quarter. He worked hard, he got the win, and now he has his Celtics in position to finish the deal and win title No. 18.
"You don't want to go into L.A. down 3‑2 with two games in L.A., so this was the biggest game of the year," Pierce said. "But you know, every game gets bigger. Great opportunity for us — two games in L.A., we've just got to get one, and I think we've been a great road team all year. We're just going to try to get it done."