Paul Pierce is excited to return to the NBA Finals and his hometown for the next round in the league's greatest rivalry.
Boston’s best player isn’t exactly thrilled that Los Angeles’ welcoming committee includes Ron Artest, a physical, tenacious defender.
“He likes to bang you,” Pierce said Monday, “grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down. He’s going to try anything.”
The NBA’s past two champions will go for another title beginning Thursday night at the Staples Center, where the Celtics face the Lakers in front of an array of Hollywood stars and, very likely, many of Pierce’s friends and family who will root against their local team.
Boston’s captain cherishes that support, though it comes with a price.
“It’s always special just to be a part of the Finals,” said Pierce, who grew up in Inglewood near the Fabulous Forum, the Lakers’ home from 1967 to 1999. “To do it in a place where I grew up, it makes it even more special. The only negative thing about it is tickets for me. I mean, it’s going to be pretty expensive.”
That was a small inconvenience two years ago when Pierce won his first NBA title in 10 seasons as the Celtics beat the Lakers in six games. Boston clinched it with a 131-92 win at home for its ninth championship in 11 Finals matchups with the Lakers.
But Artest didn’t join the Lakers until July.
Pierce averaged 24.3 points in the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic, collecting 31 points and 13 rebounds in the clincher.
But he scored just 13 points per game as Boston and Los Angeles split their two-game season series.
“I matched up with him the last 10, 11 years. He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever played against,” Pierce said of Artest. “He’ll try anything just to try to get into his opponent’s head. But I think just from playing against him over the years I’ve become used to the things that he tries to do and I just try to go out there and play my game, not really get into the antics with him.”
Artest relieves Kobe Bryant of the burden of defending the opponent’s best scorer, allowing the Lakers star to focus more on his offense.
Artest “makes a difference,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s been perfect because it’s allowed Kobe not to have to guard the best player every night. … You can see it in Kobe’s (offensive numbers). He’s as fresh as I’ve ever seen him in the playoffs, and I think it’s due to Ron Artest.”
Artest and his teammates will play before a friendly crowd Thursday that will include a small pocket of Pierce partisans.
“My friends,” Pierce said, “really grew up (as) L.A. fans and, all of a sudden, are Celtic fans because of me. So it’s a little weird for them and family.”
Have they made any comments about that?
“I don’t really get anything from friends and family,” he said. “They’ll be sure to keep their mouths closed because they want tickets.”
After the Celtics were eliminated and the Lakers won the NBA title last season, Pierce was on the West Coast walking his dog when he saw Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson in a convertible at a stop sign.
“I just said congratulations to him,” Pierce said. “I think he probably mentioned something (like), ‘See you in the finals next year.’ ”
Lakers center Andrew Bynum’s troublesome right knee has been drained of excess fluid and he hopes to be at full strength for the Finals. Bynum has a small tear in his meniscus. … Orlando center Dwight Howard might not play for USA Basketball at this summer’s world championships. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m just going to get some rest and think about that later on.”