LOS ANGELES Paul Pierce took the Boston Celtics to the brink of another improbable comeback and then let it slip out of his hands.
The All-Star scored 38 points in Game 5 of the NBA finals against Los Angeles on Sunday night, but twice in the final minutes let Kobe Bryant slap the ball away as the Lakers held on to win 103-98 and force the series back to Boston.
"Kobe is a great player. He made two big steals on myself there in the fourth quarter that I shouldn't have allowed," Pierce said. "It definitely hurts; tough one to swallow, and we'll just try to get the next one at home."
Game 6 is Tuesday night, and the Celtics would have another chance to close out their 17th NBA title on Thursday night if they need it.
The Celtics overcame a 24-point deficit to win Game 4 in Los Angeles, and they fell behind quickly in Game 5 as well. The Lakers took a 41-22 lead with the first basket of the second quarter, and again the Celtics mounted a comeback.
"It's tough when you're always fighting back from big leads of 16, 17 points," Pierce said. "That's not something we practice. But we're up one game with two games to go at home, so it still feels like we have the advantage in the series, and I do feel like we're the better team."
With Kendrick Perkins scratched from the lineup and all of the other starters resting or in foul trouble, Pierce scored 13 of Boston's next 17 points and helped out on the other two baskets with an assist and a steal as the Celtics cut a 41-22 deficit to four points with a 15-0 run.
"He attacked," Bryant said. "(He) saw opportunities to keep his team in the ballgame and that's what he did."
That was the plan.
"I notice when I'm aggressive, everybody else is aggressive," Pierce said. "So I just wanted to make plays, feel like I have an advantage night-in and night-out. That's all I do, try to get to the rim and take advantage of my opportunities."
An L.A. native facing the team he followed as a kid, Pierce had 26 at the half and finished with eight assists and six rebounds while playing all but the final 2 seconds. He was 2-for-6 from 3-point range and 16-for-19 from the line.
"He was terrific," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought he was really aggressive to the basket; getting to the foul line 19 times tells you that. I thought he really went for it, if you want to put it that way."
Pierce also helped out covering Bryant, shutting him down after the NBA MVP scored 15 points against Ray Allen in the first quarter.
"He's the whole focus for us," Pierce said. "He's a guy who can beat you all by himself, so the whole gameplan is surrounding on stopping him and making other guys beat us. It's just unfortunate that we let the other guys beat us."
But with just over 3 minutes left and the Celtics trailing 94-91, Bryant slapped the ball away from Pierce to make it a two-possession game. It was 97-95 when Pierce grabbed a rebound and brought the ball across halfcourt.
Kevin Garnett came up to set a pick, but Bryant lunged from behind to poke the ball loose. Lamar Odom grabbed it and threw it upcourt to the streaking Bryant for a clinching dunk.
"He made a really a last-ditch effort because Paul had him beat," the Celtics coach said. "It's not like he gambled; he had no choice. He just came from behind and got a piece of the ball. So give him the credit."