BOSTON – One week earlier, Paul Pierce(notes) brazenly mocked the Los Angeles Lakers' fans, shouting in the din of the Staples Center that his Boston Celtics "ain't coming back to L.A.!" By late Sunday, he was feigning amnesia.
"I never gave a prediction to you guys," Pierce said. "That was a rumor. They said I said that?"
Pierce didn't need to follow through with the act. While the Celtics didn't make good on his boast, they are returning to Los Angeles one win from their second championship in three years. And they can thank none other than Pierce. His 27 points pushed the Celtics to a 92-86 victory in Game 5 and a 3-2 advantage in the NBA Finals.
"I don't regret that," Pierce said of his prediction. "I wasn't being cocky about it. I was just confident in my team."
Pierce's own performance in these Finals hadn't done much to inspire such confidence. He had scored 10, 15 and 19 in the three games before Sunday, struggling at times against the defense of Ron Artest(notes). He didn't, however, need long to get going in Game 5. By the end of the first quarter, he had eight points.
"I thought he was awesome," said Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade(notes), who watched from a courtside seat. "He was really big for them tonight hitting big shots and really taking over the game. It looked like the player from 2008."
For one of the few times in the series, Pierce settled into a rhythm, making two 3-pointers and comfortably knocking down his signature midrange jump shot.
"Paul is a very deliberate ballplayer and when he's comfortable out there he can be very difficult to guard," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He's got a step-back, he's got a nice shot that he takes off the dribble. His post-up game is good. There's a lot of things that he has as weapons out there. He had Ron guessing out there for much of the game."
Even the Celtics felt Pierce's fury. With time running down in the second quarter, Rajon Rondo(notes) looked toward Ray Allen(notes) on the left wing instead of giving the ball to Pierce for the final shot of the half.
Pierce angrily turned the other way and appeared to start walking off the floor as Rondo threw up a wild shot at the buzzer.
Rondo darted toward Pierce afterward and the two exchanged words. Pierce later apologized to Rondo in the locker room.
"It was nothing," Pierce said. "I told Rajon at halftime I had a couple buckets going and I wanted the ball and he wanted to do something different, and I was a little upset at that. Hey, he's our point guard and I trust him. He's made so many great plays for us throughout the year and throughout the playoffs. It was nothing.
"We've got spats with our team all the time. We always have spats. But the good thing about it is we always clean it up."
The Celtics have had different players step up in each of their three victories, so the series doesn't have a clear-cut MVP. Pierce won it two years ago and later told everyone that summer he was the best player in the world. If Pierce plays big again and the Celtics win the championship, a second Finals MVP award could be headed his way.
"I'm not going to try to jinx it right now," he said. "We've got to win one game. That's the goal. But it would be amazing if we get it done."
Pierce didn't deliver on his prediction. The Celtics are indeed returning to L.A. But as the Garden fans showered him with chants of "Truth!" Pierce left them with a few words to remember.
"One more, baby," he said. "Just one more."