The MVPs of the past two Finals, and the presumptive favorites to win the award this time around, combined to score 65 points Sunday in Boston's 92-86 win over the Lakers, and did it with an epic display of old-school scoring. Bryant scored 38 points without a dunk or a layup, while Pierce's 27 included two chippies but no dunks, and he, like Bryant, scored the vast majority of his points from distance.
In fact, this was a vintage display of yesteryear scoring. Instead of watching the modern drive-and-kick game, we saw two savvy, polished scorers showing off all their tricks: midrange jumpers off the dribble, hesitation moves, up-and-unders and tough leaners in traffic.
The closest shot for Bryant came on a lob he tipped in from two feet away from a difficult angle near the right block, part of an explosion of 17 straight L.A. points by Bryant to start the third quarter. He made two other shots from inside 10 feet, but 10 of his 13 field goals came from farther out, plus he drew nine free throw attempts without getting into the paint (including two on technical fouls on Boston, it should be noted).
Most of his damage came on high-difficulty, twisting fadeaways from the middle distances. Boston arguably defended Bryant better than in any other game this series, and he scored 38 points anyway because he was converting such difficult shots. He hit 4 of 10 3-pointers, sullying his percentage only because of three desperate jacks in the closing half-minute, and made a stellar 6 of 12 from midrange.
"He's the best shot-maker in the game," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I kept turning to [assistant coaches Tom Thibodeau and Armond Hill] and saying, 'Those are tough shots.'"
"He was brimming with confidence," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who said he thought Bryant was also able to elevate better on his jumper in that third-quarter stretch because he had his ankle retaped at halftime.
It wasn't an unusual event, either; Bryant has been sticking the midrange jumper all year. He took nearly five a game and made 42.9 percent of them in the regular season; in the playoffs, he's now at 46.1 percent.
Unfortunately for Bryant, his flurry came in a losing effort, thanks in equal parts to the no-show from his teammates and the equally torrid shooting of Pierce. The MVP of the 2008 Finals scored 27 points of his own and topped it with a spectacular falling-out-of-bounds assist to Rajon Rondo for a game-clinching layup with 35 seconds left.
Pierce made two layups, but those were his only makes in the paint; like Bryant, the majority of his output came from distance, especially middle distance. Pierce's other 10 baskets came from outside the paint, and he drew his only free throws on a runner contested by Bryant in the fourth quarter.
"Paul was terrific," Rivers said. "He attacked all night. He did it through the offense, he did it through isos, he did it in pick-and-rolls."
For the night, Pierce was 10-of-17 from outside the paint, including 8-of-13 on long 2s. That's an unusually high conversion rate for anybody, even a shooter as good as Pierce.
The league average on such shots this year was 40 percent, and in fact Pierce, had regressed significantly from that range in 2009-10, after a stellar 2008-09. He took 257 long 2s in 2008-09 and made 44.7 percent of them, but that dipped to 148 this season, and he converted only 39.9 percent. He's shot it more often in the playoffs, but was only 30-of-74 from that distance in the postseason entering Game 5.
"I wanted to just be aggressive from the jump," Pierce said. "Coach came out, ran the first play for me, came off the pick-and-roll, got a nice look [one of his two layups] and just wanted to continue throughout the rest of the game. Teammates did a good job of finding me open, setting picks. But it was all in the team flow, and it was great."
The Celtics will hope he can get in such a midrange groove one more time in the next two games and propel them to one of the most unlikely championships in history. Either that, or Boston needs to find an answer for Bryant's similarly spectacular midrange shooting in Game 5.
Regardless, it was a fantastic display of skill, accomplished against two of the league's elite defensive teams, and one that should make all the old-school curmudgeons feel a little better about the state of the game these days.