The feeling for Paul Pierce remains surreal when it comes to his role in the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
Pierce sat at a crowded Boston bar, hours before the Celtics hosted the Lakers at TD Garden, and tried to comprehend a kid from Inglewood, within walking distance from the Forum, is an all-time Celtics great, with his number in the rafters.
The rivalry was renewed Saturday night in a nationally televised matchup between teams battling for their respective 18th championship.
Pierce played 33 regular-season games and 13 NBA Finals games against his hometown team. And the irony of being a legend for a franchise the Lakers still consider their chief rival is not lost on him.
“Man, a lot of this new generation don’t even know I’m from LA,” he said as he made a Boston appearance to advertise his new whiskey brand. “It’s so crazy because I’m so entrenched in Boston history and the rivalry and when I be at home, people are like, ‘What are you doing in LA? Did you move to LA?’ Everything is ironic. I can’t wait to tell my story.
“How my career went. Playing against the Lakers, how I became a basketball fan, watching the Lakers and Celtics. Everything is so ironic and I talk about it all the time.”
Pierce, 45, was part of the rivalry’s renaissance in the late 2000s. After the franchises battled three times in the NBA Finals in the 1980s, the Celtics declined after the retirements of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and suffered for more than a decade.
The Lakers acquired the great Kobe Bryant in a shrewd draft-night trade in 1996 and signed Shaquille O’Neal a few weeks later and eventually won three consecutive titles in the 2000s. Meanwhile, Pierce and Antoine Walker were fighting to keep the Celtics relevant, pushing Boston to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002.
Finally, the Lakers and Celtics would simultaneously reach the top of their conferences in 2008, when they met in the finals for the first time since 1987. Pierce was named the series MVP in leading Boston to its first title in 22 years. Bryant and his teammates exacted revenge two years later, winning an epic seven-game series in Los Angeles.
“I’m thankful that I could be a part of it,” Pierce said. “I’m actually a part of that rivalry. I would have never dreamed of anything like that. And to help continue it as one of the most iconic rivalries in all of sports, it’s still surreal to me. It’s like the game’s coming up and I’m on social media and they show old pictures of me guarding Kobe and against the Lakers, you’re constantly reminded of it.
“And most of all, when I come back and I go to these games, it feels great to be here and to be enriched in history. I’m always going to go to these games. You saw me in LA and I’m at the game here because I know I’m a part of it.”
Pierce has followed the Celtics closely as they have raced to the No. 1 record in the NBA, despite a recent three-game losing streak. He said the most important factor in bringing home the franchise’s first title in 15 years is continuing to be engaged despite anticipating the playoffs.
“I just think they need to be healthy, that’s it,” he said. “What happened to them in the finals, knowing they let that go, it made them stronger. I continue to tell people like Doc [Rivers] told us and me and [Kevin Garnett] were talking about this the other day, they just can’t get bored with the process and getting back where they need to get.
“I think this team has everything. They can score the ball. They can defend. They’ve got leadership. Coach [Joe] Mazzulla is doing a great job of keeping the guys locked in despite what happened [with Ime Udoka]. I think they’re ready to take the next step and win the championship.”
Pierce doesn’t hide his adulation for Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who has become one of the league’s premier talents and franchise cornerstones. Tatum could reach 10,000 career points in just his sixth NBA season. He appears destined for greatness.
“I think Tatum, the way the league is going now, the scoring, and guys really getting to show their true ability,” Pierce said. “When it’s all said and done, he could be the greatest Celtic to ever play.
“The skill-set, everything. He’s got it all. I don’t see no weaknesses in his game. He can play multiple positions. He can guard multiple positions. He can score at all three levels. He can go down as the greatest Celtic.”
Pierce said he wanted to take a step back after basketball to watch his children grow, but he has always held an interest in eventually being a general manager.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately,” he said. “But now [my children] are starting to get a little older, it’s something I’m thinking about.”