- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BOSTON (AP) | Paul Pierce leaned into the camera with a mock scowl and a message for the friends he grew up with: “I know you all go to the games. But if I see any of you with a Lakers jersey on, I’ll know who my real friends are.”

The Boston swingman is bringing the Celtics back to his hometown to play the Lakers, and they’re taking along a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals. For the Los Angeles native who used to sneak into the Forum to watch the Lakers as a kid, it’s a chance to show the people who knew him back when that he’s all grown up now.

“This means everything. It’s a dream,” Pierce said Sunday night after scoring 28 points to lead Boston to a 108-102 victory over the Lakers in Game 2. “It’s a dream for me to go home and play in a place where I grew up, against a team I grew up with, with the Boston Celtics, with the opportunity to win an NBA championship. Couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

Despite a knee injury that might or might not have required the help of three people to carry him from the floor in Game 1, Pierce returned to hit back-to-back 3 pointers in the series opener to give the Celtics the lead for good and propel them to victory.

In Game 2 on Sunday night, he led Boston in scoring and hit a pair of crucial free throws with 23 seconds left after the Lakers cut a 24-point deficit to 104-102. Then, with Los Angeles down four, Pierce blocked Sasha Vujacic’s 3-point attempt to protect the lead.

Thanks to the 2-3-2 format in the finals ” the earlier rounds feature two home games for each team before alternating homecourts for Games 5 through 7 ” the Lakers can take the lead in the series on their homecourt. The Celtics steamrolled through the regular season, but they’re just 2-7 on the road in the playoffs this year.

But Los Angeles doesn’t exactly represent the road for Pierce.

In visits back home with the Celtics, Pierce averages almost 28 points and seven rebounds against the Lakers, including a 33-point game at the Staples Center in Boston’s 110-91 victory in its only visit there this season. (He also averages 25.5 points and eight rebounds against the Clippers in Los Angeles.)

“Paul has home cooking in L.A.,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s not all bad.”

As a kid growing up in Inglewood, Pierce would sneak into the Forum where the Lakers used to play to see his heroes, such as Magic Johnson, go head-to-head with the Celtics in some of the NBA’s classic confrontations. After starring in high school and at Kansas, he slid to a disappointing 10th in the draft before he was picked by, of all teams, the Celtics.

“I thought, ‘… not the Celtics!’ ” he said. “Then I thought, ‘… not Rick Pitino.’ ”

Pierce survived Pitino’s notoriously difficult practices and developed into an All-Star with the Celtics, but he and Antoine Walker developed a reputation as hardheaded and difficult to coach. Pierce didn’t help matters when he clashed with U.S. team coach George Karl at the 2002 FIBA World Championship.

The Celtics had enough of Walker by the end of the 2002-03 season, when new general manager Danny Ainge decided to clean house. He traded Walker and considered doing the same with Pierce but decided to keep him at the center of the roster instead of rebuilding around the Celtics’ new, young players.

“Luckily, we all said we still have time with Paul,” owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “I want Paul here his entire career, and I want to retire his jersey when he’s done. It comes from me growing up in Boston and seeing Carl Yastrzemski.”

It also comes from seeing Pierce.

Grousbeck was sitting courtside in 2002 when the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire hammered Pierce as he drove to the basket and broke two of his teeth. The pieces of the teeth slid across the floor and came to rest at the owner’s feet.

“I can’t get that out of my head. We’re looking at these two bloody teeth,” Grousbeck said. “I said, ‘There’s a competitor there. There’s a Celtic.’ That’s all I needed to see. Then I watched him another 150 games, and I saw the same thing.

“There were never any doubts. We just needed to get him some help.”

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