LOS ANGELES – Paul Pierce had ice on his knees and a smile across his face. His Boston Celtics had just lost for the first time in these NBA Finals. He'd played a huge role in the loss, too. His much-celebrated homecoming had collapsed under the weight of a dozen missed shots, with foul trouble forcing him to spend the night shuttling from the bench to the court.
Yet as Pierce leaned back in the chair in front of his locker late Tuesday, he was not wearing the look of a man weathered by frustration or disappointment.
"We still feel," Pierce said confidently, "like we're the better team."
Why wouldn't they? The Celtics watched Kobe Bryant parade to the free-throw line, they lost their starting point guard for a significant stretch, Pierce and Kevin Garnett missed 27 shots between them and, still, with less than three minutes left and the Staples Center crowd beginning to gasp, Boston was within an errant three-pointer of taking the lead.
The Los Angeles Lakers clawed their way back into this series. Give them credit for that. Bryant's aggressiveness and the sure shot of Sasha Vujacic carried them through this game. They fought through their own fatigue in what Phil Jackson called a "transition game from East Coast to West Coast." They made the plays when it mattered most.
But the Lakers also didn't throw a scare into Boston. For Los Angeles, this was a must-win game on its own court, yet the Celtics filed out of the visitors' locker room with this thought in their heads: Was that the best the Lakers could do?
"Our job is to come out here and get two wins," Pierce said. "That's our focus, and we're not backing down from that."
The Lakers still are capable of winning these Finals, even if Bryant has to go it alone. But they're going to have a hard time even pushing the series back to Boston if they continue to play as they did Tuesday. The Celtics simply defend too well.
Championships often are won on that side of the court. The San Antonio Spurs have four banners hanging in their gym because they knew how to muck up a game, then slog their way through it, at home or on the road. The Celtics nearly did just that on a night when their top two scorers couldn't shoot.
"I liked our position the whole game," Boston coach Doc Rivers said.
Pierce naturally didn't enjoy his own vantage point all that much, considering it frequently involved a seat near his coach. Pierce's injured right knee didn't bother him as much as his foul trouble. Returning home to Los Angeles for his first NBA Finals also made him anxious.
The result was a six-point performance that ranked as his lowest of the season.
"I just need to settle down, take a deep breath and play like I've been playing," he said. "Nothing to really worry about."
There are a few things that should concern the Celtics. Rajon Rondo, who had spent much of the series cruising through the Lakers' defense, had to be helped off the court after spraining his left ankle. He returned but said afterward his foot still was sore. Garnett also missed his first seven shots and finished 6-for-21. For the series, he's shooting 35.5 percent.
Pau Gasol's length has bothered Garnett, just like it bothered Tim Duncan in the Western Conference finals. Garnett, like Pierce, said he was a little too "hyped." But Jackson also saw something else: "I just think that Kevin kind of ran out of gas."
Though never a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, Garnett has been too content to shoot jumpers instead of taking the ball to the rim.
"For the most part," he admitted, "I was watching."
Never has Garnett played this deep into a season, so it's fair to question whether he's a little worn down. But that theory also was somewhat rebutted by Garnett's play on the other side of the floor, and that's also why the Celtics ended the evening feeling somewhat upbeat.
Even in victory, the Lakers still struggled to score against them. Lamar Odom cited that as evidence "we can gut out a game," and that might be true. But if Odom has a couple more four-point, five-turnover performances, he'll be gutting out vacation by this time next week.
In five games this season, the Celtics have held the Lakers to 94, 91, 88, 102 and 87 points. Rivers called his team's defense "pretty good, not great." Boston had a few late-game breakdowns, and Rivers probably would have been wise to try to take the ball out of Bryant's hands instead of leaving Ray Allen isolated on him.
But Rivers also felt confident enough in his team's performance to even take a jab at Jackson. Asked about Jackson's contention that Garnett looked tired, Rivers retorted: "Well, I'm just surprised he didn't whine about fouls tonight."
The Lakers didn't have reason to whine Tuesday. But down 2-1, still laboring to score, they also didn't have much reason to celebrate.
The grin on Pierce's face said enough. The Lakers took a game from the Celtics. They didn't take their faith.