Pierce missed his first game of the season on April 4, when Landrum, now his fiancée, gave birth to their daughter, Prianna Lee. He cut the umbilical cord, changed diapers and came back even more motivated. Boston struggled to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, and the pressure mounted as Cleveland came next. Pierce and Garnett shared the scoring burden as the Celtics and the Cavaliers split the first six games, but the plan for Game 7, Garnett says, was: Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way.
Pierce didn't wait. He stole the ball from LeBron James on Cleveland's first possession, setting the tone. The two traded impossible baskets all afternoon—James scoring 45, Pierce 41—but it was Pierce's dive to beat James to the tip of a jump ball with one minute left that sparked visions of Bird's 1987 pickoff against Detroit. It was Pierce's killer free throws with 7.9 seconds left—the first one bouncing high off the back of the rim like Don Nelson's prayer in 1969—that sent James home.
Then, in the deciding Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, Pierce scored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter at Auburn Hills, and Boston came back to win, and the whole time he looked more alive than anyone had ever seen him. Pierce grabbed Rivers in a hug at series' end. "Thanks for sticking with me," he said.
Pierce's performance in the Celtics' dismantling of the Lakers in the Finals sealed the transformation. In Game 1 he left the court with a knee injury, but he returned to hit two three-pointers and give Boston the lead for good. In Game 2 he led the Celtics in scoring and held off L.A.'s desperate comeback with two key free throws and a block on Sasha Vujacic's three-pointer. With Boston down 18 at the half of Game 4, Pierce demanded that Rivers let him guard Bryant, then dogged the Lakers guard relentlessly, blocked one of his jumpers and held him to 6-of-15 shooting, and the Celtics fought all the way back to win and take a 3--1 series lead.
Pierce, the Finals MVP, would outplay Bryant again in the next game and Boston would win in six, but the championship—and Pierce's legacy—was secured in Game 4. George Karl is 57 and has seen the greatest, from Russell to Jordan, produce the kind of basketball that can make a coach swoon. He was in the building for the Celts' miraculous comeback and saw it up close.
"Probably the best half of basketball I can remember one player playing," Karl says.
PAUL PIERCE knew that many observers figured he would spend the off-season celebrating in Vegas, getting fat and happy with last summer's win. And yes, he did his share of partying. But despite Rivers's orders not to come back to town till camp opened, Pierce returned a month early, nine pounds lighter, his body more toned. "He came in the first day," Garnett says, "and the man looked like he was on steroids or something. You know what I'm saying? He's committed. He was telling me, 'I'm ready.'"
The night before the opener, Pierce drove the seven minutes from his house to the team's empty training center and spent an hour drilling alone. "My time to zone in and see the game the way I picture it," he says. "My way." Then he went to dinner with the dozen or so people he had flown in for the ceremony, and Steve Hosey saw him hovering over his baby and fiancée, and edged over to hug him and tell Paul how he couldn't feel prouder of the journey he had made.
But it wasn't over. Pierce has proven himself, and he's enough of a player to pound his chest about it; when people asked this summer about Kobe, he would say, "I think I'm the best player in the world." But somewhere along the way, he felt this ... shift. A championship had always been the goal, the way to quiet critics and tell the thugs they'd only made him stronger and, maybe, show that man what he had missed out on. But in the months after, Pierce found that he enjoyed how others—his brothers, cousins and uncles—enjoyed his success more than he did. He found himself feeling that his time in the delivery room, seeing his daughter born, was better than winning it all. "It was unreal," he whispers. It made him decide some things.
"I don't want to be the dad that my father was," Pierce says. "I want to see my child grow. Who knows if I would've made it if he had been involved? Who knows if I would've been that much better? Who knows? But I'm sure his influence wouldn't have hurt those times I fell off my bike or didn't have nobody to rebound for me. I want to be there for my daughter—when she falls, to pick her up. When she needs help with homework."