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Road to Redemption

In a championship series in which many have much to prove, long-suffering Celtics star Paul Pierce did the most to rehab his image, leading his team to a pair of home wins over the favored Lakers

For the mostpart, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce traveled in separate circles on Sunday nightin Game 2 of the NBA Finals at TD Banknorth Garden. (Motto: We may be namedafter a financial institution, but we still have parquet!) They matched up morefrequently in last Thursday's Game 1, two streamlined sumos fighting forposition in their dohyo just above the free throw line. But now, with just 25seconds remaining and the Boston Celtics clinging to a two-point lead that hadstood at 24 only seven minutes earlier, Bryant was the one called on to defendPierce, who held the ball at the top of the key. ¬∂ Implicit in eachBryant-Pierce minibattle is another struggle, a crusade to win the hearts andminds of NBA fans—nothing less than parallel campaigns for redemption. The LosAngeles Lakers' Bryant is already recognized as the best player of hisgeneration, but he wants a CSS (Championship Sans Shaq) that would, in hismind, cap the rehabilitation of an image that has taken more blows than api√±ata. For his part, the Celtics' sometimes petulant Pierce longs for a titlethat would enable him to approach the elite status of Bryant as well as divesthimself of some of the baggage that he has accrued during a 10-year career inBoston. Mistakes? I've made a few, Pierce will allow, an admission that comesfar more reluctantly from Bryant.

Pierce dribbledleft and barreled into the lane, the manner in which he usually attacks thehoop. Bryant was on his hip but needed help, which three Lakers provided. Oneof them, guard Derek Fisher, hit Pierce across the forearm and was called for afoul. Pierce not only made both free throws, but he also clinched the victoryat the other end by blocking Sasha Vujacic's three-point attempt, grazing theball with the fingertips of his left hand. Two James Posey foul shots put thefinal margin at 108--102, Boston's second straight home win over Los Angeles,which was favored in most quarters to win the series.

Whichever startravels farthest on his road to redemption may well be the difference in achampionship series that has conjured up more 1980s history than a documentaryon Ronald Reagan. As of Sunday night it was advantage Pierce, his dramatic(Lakers coach Phil Jackson repeatedly suggested overdramatic) third-quarterreturn to the court from a right-knee sprain having sparked the Celtics to a98--88 victory in Game 1. Wearing a support sleeve but showing no other signsof distress ("I didn't really think about the injury, because once I stepon the court it pretty much goes out the window"), he scored 28 points onSunday, only two fewer than Bryant, and on 16 shots to Kobe's 23.

Bryant was thebright light of an otherwise listless L.A. performance—though not as bright ashe usually is. Perhaps sensing that most of the Lakers are Not Ready forPrime-Time Players, Jackson had put Game 2 on Bryant's shoulders, recalling his9-for-26 shooting in the Game 1 loss. "He usually doesn't have two games ina row that are bad," Jackson said before Game 2. "Kobe comes back andplays better. So we anticipate that's going to be a pattern." Well, Bryantreally didn't play better on Sunday, not until the fourth quarter, when hescored 13 of his 30 points.

There are others,of course, who figure in this struggle for redemption, not the least of whom isCeltics big man Kevin Garnett, famously recognized as a postseason failureduring his 12 seasons in Minnesota. In Games 1 and 2 Garnett was a rock,averaging 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, drifting around the edges of theoffense but always delivering when called upon, and protecting the paint in hisunselfish and vigilant way. There is shooting guard Ray Allen, the sometimesforgotten member of the Celtics' Big Three, another All-Star who in 12 previousseasons had never advanced this far in the playoffs. Like Garnett, Allen wassteady, providing 18 points a game and the primary defensive pressure onBryant. And for that matter, a championship would also redeem coach Doc Rivers,whose acumen has been doubted by a large contingent of Boston fans for fourseasons, including this one, in which his team won a league-leading 66games.

But there isredemption and there is redemption, and it is Bryant and Pierce, in theirPromethean struggles with the only NBA teams for which they've played, who needit most. As the series moved to L.A. for Games 3, 4 and 5, it was clearly onBryant to get his team moving. He was extremely animated in timeout huddles onSunday, even when the Lakers were down by 20. What did he say? "Get ourbeep in gear," said Bryant, using beep instead of bleep. "Play beepharder, a bunch of other beeps. It was beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. EddieMurphy Raw times 10."

At the same time,it was incumbent upon Pierce to keep his foot on the gas against a team thathad won all eight of its playoff games at Staples Center. The Celtics' captainhad much assistance in Boston, including an improbable 21 points on Sunday froma backup backup frontcourtman named Leon Powe (pronounced POE). Jackson calledhim Pow, probably deliberately, to call attention to the disparity betweenPowe's free throw total (13 in his 15 minutes) and L.A.'s (10 for the game).The Lakers will likely say nevermore to such a Powe performance at Staples, soPierce will need to gear up his act on the road, where it will no doubt besuggested that his knee injury is, well, something you'd see in Hollywood.

IT WAS about ayear ago that Bryant and Pierce, their teams long forgotten (the Lakers hadlost in the first round of the playoffs and the Celtics didn't even make thepostseason, both for the second straight year), began comparing notes when theyran into each other during pickup games at UCLA. "We talked about a lot ofthings," Bryant said last week. "We talked about who was getting tradedfirst. I guess that's one thing I'm happy I didn't win." Pierce, who couldenvision a bleak future as, say, a Los Angeles Clipper, agrees. "I rememberus saying that neither one thought we'd be back with our team," saysPierce, who grew up in Inglewood and returns to his Southern California rootsin the off-season. "He felt strongly about moving on from the Lakers, and Ifelt the same way with Boston. So it's kind of ironic that we're in thisposition on the same teams playing each other for a championship."

The redemptionquest for Pierce is more desperate than it is for Bryant. The Lakers star hasthree rings, even if they were earned alongside Shaquille O'Neal, and is asurefire Hall of Famer. Pierce, on the other hand, had played in just oneconference finals (in 2002) before this season and waits, impatiently, justoutside the velvet ropes of superstardom. He has never been as airily haughtyin the public eye as Kobe. When Bryant was asked last week why so many of histeammates wear his signature sneakers (Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and D.J.Mbenga lace up the new Hyperdunk, while Ronny Turiaf favors the older Zoom KobeIII), he had the chance to muster up at least some wink-of-the-eye humility.We're all just waiting for Ronny to get his own shoe, he might've said.Instead, Bryant lapsed into Nike-speak, referring to his famous viral videoclip. "They all have an interest in jumping over cars," he said."It intrigues them, so they wear the shoes." That is Bryant, take himor leave him, the latter being what much of America—aside from L.A., whereKobe-adoration knows no bounds—chooses to do. His hunt for redemption is veryreal, but he does not ask for our blessing or approval along the way.

Bryant glidesthrough life. Pierce claws. The Celtics' swingman has not been pilloried to thedegree that Bryant has, but then Pierce has not publicly erred on such amanifest scale as Bryant did when he found himself accused of rape in 2003.(The charge was dropped.) Pierce was clearly the victim when he was stabbednearly a dozen times in a Boston nightclub in September '00. Still, Pierce hashad his moments, which he collectively calls "the dumb stuff I did."For much of his early career he affixed a scowl to his face, suggesting thatthis child's game for which he was handsomely compensated brought about as muchpleasure as dealing with a duodenal ulcer. He played angry as well, bulling hisway to the basket and flailing his arms wildly to get a foul call, the Americanversion of the European flop. (Though his game has become much more refined, hestill does that from time to time.) He came across as the emblem of theself-centered American player when, as the team's top scorer, he "led"the United States to a sixth-place finish in the '02 world championships inIndianapolis, alienating teammates and coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich.And who could forget when he showed up at a press conference after the Celtics'Game 6 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the '05playoffs with his head wrapped in bandages, to protest a foul that he thoughtshould have been called.

Then, too, notall of the dumb stuff is so far in the past. It was only last season that hepresented himself as "the classic case of a great player on a badteam," thereby creating a two-caste system, just as Bryant would do lastspring with his comments about his lack of a supporting cast and his tradedemand. And in the first round of this postseason Pierce was fined $25,000 forflashing what league officials considered to be a "menacing gesture"toward the Atlanta Hawks' bench. Last week Pierce acknowledged to DanShaughnessy of The Boston Globe that it "can be" a gang sign but addedthat "anything can be a gang gesture. It's whatever you interpret it as. Iinterpret it as something different, where a gang member is going to interpretit as a gang symbol." Welcome to the Spin Room.

Also still opento interpretation is the knee injury Pierce suffered in the third quarter ofGame 1, when teammate Kendrick Perkins fell into his leg. Pierce's face wascontorted in pain as he was carried off the court by teammates Tony Allen andBrian Scalabrine, then deposited in a wheelchair. That was followed by hisskip-the-light-fantastic return three minutes later. "You know, I think Godjust sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right,'"Pierce said after the game. "'You need to get back out there. Show themwhat you've got.'"

That served as anice setup line for Jackson, who was asked between Games 1 and 2 to comparePierce's return with Willis Reed's dramatic hobble out of a Madison SquareGarden locker room before Game 7 of the 1970 Finals between Jackson's New YorkKnicks and the Lakers. "[Reed] had to have a shot, a horse shot, three orfour of them in his thigh to come back out and play," said Jackson, wholives for such moments when his wry wit can be sufficiently engaged. "Paulgot carried off and was back on his feet in a minute. I don't know if theangels visited him at halftime ... but he didn't even limp when he came backout on the floor.... Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?"

Pierce couldlaugh that off on Sunday night. While Bryant, head down, had already turnedaway from the action and was heading toward the locker room when the Game 2buzzer sounded, Pierce did a couple of on-court interviews and then, armsraised in triumph, skipped toward the tunnel that leads to the Celtics' lockerroom. While the path to redemption will be far more difficult to negotiate inL.A., on Sunday night at least there were only joyous supporters lining hisway.

Pierce had played in just one conference finals beforethis season and WAITS JUST OUTSIDE the velvet ropes of superstardom.




Jack McCallum, Ian Thomsen, Marty Burns, Chris Mannixand Arash Markazi keep you on top of all the Finals action as the series movesto L.A.



Photograph by Bob Rosato

COMING ON STRONG Pierce (34) was his usual combative self in Game 1, finishing with 22 points even after injuring his knee; in Game 2 he carried the Celtics with 28 points and eight assists.



HIGHS AND LOWS Pierce celebrated with (from left) Tony Allen, Eddie House and James Posey as Boston built a Game 2 lead despite Bryant's defense on Rajon Rondo (opposite).


Photograph by Bob Rosato

[See caption above]