They must have had some of that magical soccer injury spray in the Boston Celtics locker room Thursday night. Midway through the third quarter Paul Pierce went down with an injury that looked like it might be as ugly as they come. He lay on the court curled up in pain and clutching his knee before being carried off by two teammates, then rolled to the locker room in a wheelchair.
Pierce, who'd scored three points in the first half, had just started to heat up, dropping in eight in the five-plus minutes before going down. Now it looked like he could he be lost for the rest of the Finals. It looked like the kind of injury that could threaten a career.
He missed less than two minutes.
Pierce bounced back onto the court, his knee wrapped, bringing the home crowd to its feet and putting a charge in his teammates, who were neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of this much anticipated series, the first between the NBA's two most storied franchises in 21 years. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, wanting to defuse the moment, called timeout, the Celtics leading 63-62.
Late in the quarter, the Lakers up by two, Pierce nailed 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, giving the Celtics a four-point lead they would never relinquish. Pierce couldn't have staged it any better. His Lazarus routine will go down in NBA playoff history, especially if the Celtics win this series. They won Game 1, 98-88.
It wasn't quite Willis Reed's dramatic entrance before the start of Game 7 in 1970, but it was pretty storybook, Pierce's second for-the-ages night of these playoffs, following his 45-point performance in the Game 7 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers last month.
Not that the Celtics' Game 1 victory was fueled by magic, out of a trainer's spray can or otherwise. For the record, Pierce said he felt something pop and a lot of pain at first, but when he insisted on trying to put some weight on his knee and moving around in the locker room, it was just a little sore, so he put a wrap on it and headed back into the arena.
What did the Lakers in was the stifling Celtics defense that knocked Kobe Bryant off his rhythm. With Ray Allen in his face most of the game, Bryant had a rough shooting night. He described it as "I just missed some bunnies," but while he did have some shots go in and out, it was more than that.
The Celtics, as was their plan, took away his penetration, which not only turned him into a much-less-dangerous jump shooter but denied him the chance to kick the ball out to his teammates for threes. The Lakers averaged more than eight made 3-pointers a game in the regular season and they're averaging more than six and a half in the playoffs. Thursday night, they made three. Boston also kept Bryant off the free-throw line. He shot six all night.
The Lakers failed to figure out a Plan B and down they went. Game 2 isn't until Sunday, so Pierce, limping badly after Thursday's contest, will have an extra day to try to recuperate.
The Lakers will have to get better too. They'll need improved shooting and ball movement, and they'll need Bryant to be more aggressive in trying to take Allen off the dribble. A comeback by Los Angeles at this point wouldn't be as dramatic as Pierce's resurrection was, but if the Celtics can get another home win Sunday, the Lakers might have to start looking around for one of those magic spray cans.