Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was sitting at LAX Airport yesterday afternoon still in awe at what happened the night before.
Kobe Bryant was stopped by one man.
That "man" was someone who Karl needed, among others, in the summer of 2002 when he was coaching the U.S. national team at the World Championships in Indianapolis.
That "man" was Paul Pierce, who was Karl's best player on that team, a player he battled with on and off the court for much of that disappointing and embarrassing sixth-place finish.
Karl was in Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4 of the NBA finals to see his son, Coby, a 25-year-old rookie benchwarmer with the Lakers.
He also got an up-close-and-personal view of Pierce, who we might as well call his prodigal son.
"Paul's performance (Thursday night), especially in the second half when he was covering Kobe (Bryant), was not only the best I've ever seen him play," said Karl, "it was maybe the best I've ever seen anyone play. Paul is noted for his offense, but what he was able to do covering Kobe was amazing, especially coming in the NBA finals."
Karl says other than a shake here and a wave there, he has not spoken to Pierce, one on one, since that difficult experience in Indianapolis.
The experience for both was humbling.
After coasting through wins over Algeria, Germany and China, Karl's team lost consecutive games to Argentina (87-80) and Yugoslavia (81-78), thus missing the medal round. The loss to Spain, 81-75, in the fifth-place game was the straw the broke the camel's back.
"When we lost Reggie Miller due to an ankle sprain, we needed Paul to play at higher level and play big minutes against the best teams," said Karl. "Look, 2002 was difficult for everybody and Paul, being our best player, probably bore the brunt of it."
Karl was critical of Pierce, who was just 24 at the time, and didn't play him in the fourth quarter of the loss to Spain.
Against Argentina, Pierce was benched after he tried to trip one player and to push another from behind.
Karl wasn't the only one disappointed in Pierce. Here was an assessment of Pierce's play for the tournament by ESPN.com's Ric Bucher:
"Pierce became a fan/media darling because of his stats and despised by his teammates for the way he got them. Pierce put the Germany game out of reach with his eight-point burst in 50 seconds to close the third quarter and led the team in scoring, but his fourth-quarter battle with Milan Gurovic decided the Yugoslavia game. His defense left a lot to be desired throughout the tournament, but never more than here.
"Gurovic scored 10 of his 15 points in the final 10 minutes, including three 3s in Pierce's grill. Pierce, meanwhile, not only went scoreless but he didn't get open on the U.S. team's last two plays, both drawn for him."
Pierce is on record as saying he is a different player this year. Celtics coach Doc Rivers and team President Danny Ainge deserve a lot of credit for that.
"They just got me to realize that if I want to be a leader, I have to act like one," said Pierce two weeks ago. "And that means body language. That means making other players better."
That is music to Karl's ears.
"What we're seeing is a player becoming more serious, more committed to winning every day," said Karl. "No one ever questioned Paul's talents. If you watched him practice for two days, you'd see that he was a great player. He doesn't have a weakness. He can handle the ball. He runs the wing. He can post up. He can shoot. He can drive to the basket. He can finish."
Karl said the last month has put Pierce on a level with the best of the best of the NBA.
"This is the most complete season I've seen him have," said Karl of the 10-year veteran. "He has always had great games, great weeks and even great months. But this was a great year, an entire season. What he's done in the playoffs, performing at the highest level in Game 7s against Atlanta and Cleveland, you can see now how important winning is to him.".
Karl is overjoyed at his son Coby's success. First, many thought the undrafted free agent would never make the NBA, and to get there he has had to beat thyroid cancer.
"I'm so proud of Coby," said Karl. "It makes you feel like a good father. Parenting is one of the hardest things I've ever done. To see him grow and prosper and move from parent to friend is one of my great life experiences."
But Karl also admits it is hard to root against Pierce, who appears to have finally put Indianapolis in 2002 behind him.
"Paul Pierce has showed a lot of people how great he really is," said Karl. "I'm happy for him. He deserves it. He's a good example of a player getting it. ... And I'll never forget what he did defensively against Kobe."
Neither will we.
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Burt Talks Sports," at blogs.eagletribune.com/sports.
In May 2005, here is what George Karl told the Boston Globe about Paul Pierce's behavior at the 2002 World Championships.
"When we got beat and were told to be humble and take our losses like warriors, he decided to jump out there and fight the negativity. And because I was the head man, I had to call him out on it. None of us wanted to play those last two games [after being eliminated from the medal round]. None of us wanted to watch film. But you've got to do that. And Paul just pushed the line, pushed the line. His reaction to the negativity, to a crisis, was that we all have to protect ourselves, our own egos."