BOSTON -- Welcome back, Paul. The Celtics are glad you're back. Oh, and by the way, you are going back to Los Angeles. That's a good thing, right?
Paul Pierce, the Celtics' captain, ruffled a few L.A. boas with his boast in the closing minutes of Game 2 that the Celtics would not be coming back to the Staples Center, the clear inference being that Boston would sweep Games 3-5 at home and win the NBA championship in five games.
Entering the fourth quarter in Game 4, it did look as though the Celtics actually might not get back to Los Angeles, as they trailed 62-60 after having dropped Game 3.
Staring a 3-1 deficit in the eyes, the Celtics' bench rescued the team. And when the starters did come in to finish the job in the final three minutes, they turned to a familiar fellow, No. 34. He delivered.
With the Celtics holding a 95-89 lead, Pierce coolly drained an 11-foot, second-chance step-backer. Then, following the obligatory Kobe Bryant hoop, Pierce drove for a layup, drew a foul on Bryant, and pretty much settled things with his three-point play with 77 seconds left, giving Boston an insurmountable 90-81 lead.
The series is tied, 2-2, after Boston's 96-89 victory. And for the first time in three games, Pierce can lay claim to having played a major role in the outcome. (Of course, he also played a major role in Game 3 by not playing due to foul trouble.) This was the same Paul Pierce who, his coach claimed, was taken out of Game 3 by the referees and not allowed to play.
Not so in Game 4. Pierce finished with a team-high 19 points on a Prius-like economical and efficient shooting night (7-of-12, after being 13-of-36 in the first three games). He had six rebounds, a team-high five assists and got the Celtics going both early and late. This performance came after his underwhelming submission from Game 2 (2-of-11) and his foul-plagued, quasi-effort in Game 3.
For Celtics fans, it was a long-awaited, much-anticipated resurgence. For Pierce, it was simply a matter of having his number called early and being assertive.
"Coach giving me a few calls here and there,'' shrugged Pierce, when asked to explain the difference from the previous two games. "We ran a lot of pick-and-rolls with me in it. Haven't run a lot [of those]. I just wanted to be aggressive. I mean, that was the most important thing for us on the list to get Paul Pierce going."
The Celtics ran their first play for Pierce. He was fouled. They ran another one for him on their third possession (after Ray Allen had his "Hallelujah" hoop to end his 0-for-16 shooting drought dating back to Game 2). He had two more hoops, both on layups (there's that aggressiveness of which he spoke) and had seven points in the first 4:03.
"I thought he attacked early and that's what got us going,'' Kendrick Perkins said of Pierce. "That got us off to a pretty good start."
All of those points came against the pesky Ron Artest, who, depending on your viewpoint, was either a major factor in Pierce's struggles (West Coast version) or had less to do with the struggles than the referees (East Coast version). In the first three games of the NBA Finals, Pierce had been 10-of-21 from the field when guarded by Artest. In Game 4, he was 7-of-11.
The normal article of faith with Pierce: If he is driving to the basket, he is into the game and ready for a big night. And the driving plays were right off the Doc Rivers chalkboard.
"I thought he was aggressive, but I also thought we did a better job of going to him,'' Rivers said. "The first play of the game we set up to go to him. He got fouled and you could see he was going to drive. We talked about that after the last game, that there were some great driving lanes and he has to take them. We can't forget that he is our best scorer. I think at times we do that. I've got to do a better job there. Everyone does."
Pierce leads the Celtics in scoring in the playoffs, averaging 18.7 points a game. He's not shooting the ball all that well (43.4 percent) and has had his shooting woes in the Finals (41.6 percent). But he made two of three shots in the final 2:51 -- and all three of his free throws -- when he assumed the Mariano Rivera role after earlier taking on the Jacoby Ellsbury role.
"When I came [back] into the game, the guys said, 'Attack, be aggressive, don't be passive.'" Pierce said. "I think when I'm passive, I turn the ball over or things don't go my way. But when I play on my instincts and attack, I'm a much better player. And that's what I wanted to do when I got back in there in the fourth."
Mission accomplished in this case. This was the Pierce the Celtics hope to see for the remainder of the series. He's been an afterthought for much of the Finals, but he made his presence known in Game 4, reminding everyone what he can do when the spirit moves him -- and the coach calls his number.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.