The will-he-or-won't-he? drama played out in the newspapers before Game 2, but really, no one close to the series suspected for one moment that Pierce would not play in Game 2. Least of all Jackson. In the days before the game the L.A. coach compared Pierce's leaving the game to players having equipment malfunctions with torn shoelaces and broken drawstrings; scoffed at his sudden revival in the locker room ("Was Oral Roberts back there?") and said that the only aspect of the whole episode his team had discussed was Pierce's being put in a wheelchair ("We decided it was the first time we had seen that").
A strategic ploy might've been running through the mind of the Zen Master, though. In the old days ('60s and '80s) of the rivalry, the Celtics were seen as the tough guys and the Lakers the drama kings, the kind of guys who might, say, hop in a wheelchair after a minor injury. Jackson could've been trying to send a message that times had changed.
The problem for the Lakers, though, was that the Celtics were still the tougher team, as they proved in this game by dominating the boards, stifling L.A.'s interior players ( Lamar Odom and Gasol) and continuing to offer help on defense against Bryant that limited his path to the basket. "They make me a perimeter player," Bryant had admitted before the game.
The Lakers' defense, meanwhile, made Celtics backup forward Leon Powe an All-Star player. The second-year forward stole the show in the third quarter. When Powe threw down a ferocious dunk with 35 seconds left in the period, Cassell and his fellow backup point guard, Eddie House, celebrated so wildly on the bench that they had to be restrained by referee Kenny Mauer. At that moment Powe (pronounced Poe) was both the most famous sports Leon since Spinks and the personification of a horror tale to the Lakers, who were having enough trouble stopping Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
After three quarters it was Celtics 83, Lakers 61. We had come for a classic rivalry, and instead we were getting Spurs-Cavaliers.
But then the Lakers started picking away, and the Celtics' offense went to sleep. Bryant at last found his touch—he would finish the fourth quarter with 13 points—and Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic added key three-pointers. The Garden had grown almost quiet as the lead was cut to just 104-102 after two Bryant free throws with 38 seconds left.
But then it was time for...who else but Pierce? He drove to the basket, drew a foul and made both free throws. Then, at the other end, he jumped as high as he could and just grazed a potential Vujacic three-pointer with the fingertips of his "off" hand, the left. Victory was preserved.
But what was the lasting message? That the Celtics' dominance had peaked in the third quarter of Game 2? Or that they had the staying power to remain on top even after the Lakers rediscovered some of their mojo?
"All I know is that we're going back home," said Odom. "Things will be different there."
June 10, Staples Center, Los Angeles
LAKERS 87, CELTICS 81