LOS ANGELES – At halftime of a pending disaster, with his offensive game seemingly left back in Boston and the NBA Finals on the verge of being squared up at two games apiece, Paul Pierce asked his coach for the toughest assignment in the NBA.
"I want Kobe," he told Doc Rivers. "Give me Kobe."
If the Boston Celtics were going to storm back from a 24-point deficit and move to the brink of their 17th NBA championship, then it would need two of the things Pierce has never been famous for – defense and leadership.
For 10 seasons he's always been a scorer. Now with that even failing him, he went with trying to be a champion.
So he asked to guard Kobe Bryant, the dangerous Los Angeles Lakers scorer. The locker room was stunned. Yes, this is a prideful defensive team where guys make these kinds of requests, but he wants Kobe? Nobody wants Kobe. Certainly not when the game was all but lost anyway.
"That got everybody hyped up," said Leon Powe.
The third quarter started with a surge of Celtics energy. Then Pierce delivered a huge block of Bryant, right in front of the Boston bench, that sent hopes soaring. With each defensive possession, Pierce's presence grew and the Lakers' lead shrunk. He muscled Bryant sometimes, stayed in front of him all the time and even found time to find his own offensive game.
By the fourth quarter, with the deficit erased, Bryant still in single digits and Pierce heaving in exhaustion, Rivers figured the point was made. He tried to switch the pressure off of Pierce, send a trap of two or three guys to handle the MVP.
And Pierce, hands on his shorts and breathing heavy in the huddle, would have none of it.
"He told Doc, 'No, no, I got him. I got him. Just show, don't trap. Don't go messing up our whole defense to just get the ball out of his hands. Just show and I'm going to go get him,' " Powe said.
He got them. Boston 97, Los Angeles 91 in an historic, gritty comeback – the biggest in NBA Finals history – putting the Celtics on the verge, up 3-1 with a Father's Day closeout here looming.
"It's a dream if I can come out here and win on Sunday," said Pierce.
For most of Pierce's 10 seasons in Boston, the idea he would willingly give up on conserving energy for offense to fight the potentially impossible defensive fight of containing Bryant, seemed improbable. That he'd try anything to win this championship, do the blood-and-guts dirty work, seemed impossible.
While he's far tougher and competitive than his reputation allows, the questions remained.
This is a guy who as a rookie was practically introduced to the city of Boston by getting stabbed 11 times in the face by some two-bit rapper. He was a good player, certainly, but mostly on the offensive end where the glory was obvious. He became known as the best player on some of Boston's worst teams. In a franchise known for winning and winning only, where hanging banners is all that matters, Pierce's willingness to lead never seemed to match the past greats.
Maybe the standards aren't fair, but no one said being a Celtics captain is easy. Give me Kobe? Yes, that's what Russell would have said. That's a Havlicek move. Bird. Cousy. Cowens. D.J. or Maxwell. That's what Celtics do, the guys with those numbers hanging from the rafters, right next to the championships they won.
"He dug deep," said P.J. Brown. "In that second half, you could just look at him and see it. He wanted this. He wanted this bad.
"It was like, 'This is my time; I'm leaving this on the floor.' "
Up and down the roster the whole mood changed with his repeated requests. If anything, Pierce should have been sulking. He'd been terrible since the series shifted to his old hometown. He was 4 for 20 from the floor in a game and a half here. In the first quarter alone Thursday, his plus/minus was an appalling negative 21.
But here he was; stepping up, standing up, even if this game looked like it would be one long embarrassment.
"When he started guarding Kobe, I think he just started competing," said Ray Allen. "I mean, he had been competing, but you could see he just went up another level. … It took for Paul to say, 'Let me guard him.' When he said that, I knew."
Pierce didn't score all the points – although he finished with 20 to Bryant's 17. He didn't grab all the rebounds or make all the stops. But he led the charge for a relentless pack of believers.
He was the catalyst of a victory that will go down as legend even for the league's most legendary franchise.
"I knew we weren't going to lay down," Pierce said. "It wasn't about believing we can win. It was just going out there and competing. We got aggressive and stayed aggressive."
In the end, after the Staples Center had begun to empty in disappointment, after the L.A. kid did the quick television interview and looked so tired he might collapse, Pierce acknowledged the family and friends hugging and dancing behind the Celtics bench.
Then he threw his headband into the stands, pumped his fist and shouted proud and loud with whatever he had left in him, one game he knew now from cementing his own legacy.
"That's how you do it," he screamed again and again. "That's how you do it."
That's how Celtics' greats have done it forever.