BOSTON – Having gone from Brian Scalabrine's arms to wheelchair to scorer's table to NBA legend in about, oh, seven minutes, Paul Pierce's miraculous recovery continued another day. He complained his right knee was stiff and sore, said he likely wouldn't have been able to play Friday and then, when asked to assess his chances of starting Sunday's Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics star forward didn't hesitate with his answer.
"I think there's a great chance I'll play," he said.
Some 12 hours earlier Pierce also claimed to have been touched by an angel, and that was the first sign something might be amiss.
After all, does anyone believe Michael Landon was really a Celtics fan?
More than a couple of the Los Angeles Lakers have rolled their eyes over Pierce's dramatic performance in the Finals' opening game, no one more than their coach. Asked about Pierce's "Willis Reed moment," Phil Jackson smiled.
"Well, if I'm not mistaken, I think Willis Reed missed a whole half and three quarters almost of a game and literally had to have a shot – a horse shot – three or four of them in his thigh to come back out and play," Jackson said. "Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute. I don't know if the angels visited him at halftime or in the timeout period that he had or not, but he didn't even limp when he came back out on the floor.
"Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?"
This was Jackson at his best, and Pierce can take credit for that, too. Not only did he will the Celtics to their impressive Game 1 victory, he transformed Phil Jackson back into his cynical, sarcastic, cutting self.
"That," said of one of Jackson's former players, "was the Phil Jackson we've been waiting to see."
Until Thursday, Jackson had kept his barbs to himself throughout these playoffs. Lakers officials said they've never seen him so relaxed. Perhaps that's because these young Lakers have already exceeded his expectations. Or maybe, as some have speculated, he never really viewed the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz or San Antonio Spurs as true threats.
These Celtics, however, are exactly that.
Jackson usually reserves his deepest cuts for his toughest opponents. He angered the Spurs by attaching an asterisk to their lockout-season championship then later derisively labeled San Antonio a "tourist trap." He called Sacramento a "cow town" and even alternately spliced photos of Hitler with game film of the Kings then-coach, Rick Adelman. Gregg Popovich got off easy. Jackson used to privately refer to him and his Spurs coaching staff as the "Simulator Crew."
Jackson has also tweaked Mike D'Antoni, complained about which side of the court the Jazz warmed up on and once told Tim Duncan to stop whining to the officials. Jackson's players, particularly the veterans, have typically delighted in the antics. He makes the grind of the regular season entertaining and lightens the too-tense tenor of the playoffs.
Still, Jackson had been uncharacteristically mild this spring, even offering only praise for Red Auerbach, Boston's late patriarch and his longtime rival. So perhaps it's not a coincidence that he sharpened his teeth at exactly the same time the Lakers fell into their first deficit of these playoffs. Zinging Pierce sure beats discussing whether Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher didn't share the ball enough.
In truth, any insinuation that Pierce staged his return is just as comical. Pierce didn't fake his injury any more than Bryant faked the back spasms that slowed him for an afternoon in Utah. When Bryant recovered well enough the following game to total 26 points, seven assists and six rebounds and beat the Jazz, he, too, heard skeptics debate whether he had really been injured.
Privately, some Celtics have suggested Pierce was probably more scared than hurt, and that's understandable. He heard his knee "pop," and as any athlete knows that's not a good sound. "Once I felt a sharp pain … I didn't know what to think," Pierce said. "The worst came to mind."
The worst, of course, never arrived. Once in the locker room Pierce found he could put his weight on the leg without much trouble. Getting carried off the court, he admitted, "was sort of embarrassing." The Celtics also haven't even deemed it necessary to further evaluate the injury with an MRI.
"At this point, with two weeks left, six games to go, we can figure this out at the end of the season," Pierce said.
On Friday that only fueled West Coast skepticism that he couldn't be in too much pain.
"Aren't we skeptics anyway now about everything?" Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "So, what the heck? Let it begin. Let it begin. Lee Harvey Oswald did it."
Lee Harvey. Oral Roberts. Michael Landon. All the Celtics need to know is this: If Phil Jackson is taking aim at them, if Pierce has awakened the cynic in the old Lakers coach, they must be doing something right.
- Phil Jackson