WALTHAM, Mass. – Paul Pierce is excited to return to the NBA finals and his hometown for the next round in the league’s greatest rivalry.

Boston’s best player isn’t exactly thrilled that Los Angeles’ welcoming committee includes Ron Artest, a physical, tenacious defender.

“He likes to bang you,” Pierce said Monday, “grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down. He’s going to try anything.”

The NBA’s past two champions will go for another title beginning Thursday night when the Celtics face the Lakers in front of an array of Hollywood stars and, very likely, a large number of Pierce’s friends and family who will root against their local team.

Boston’s captain cherishes that support, though it comes with a price.

“It’s always special just to be a part of the finals,” he said. “To do it in a place where I grew up, it makes it even more special. The only negative thing about it is tickets for me. I mean, it’s going to be pretty expensive.”

That was a small inconvenience two years ago when Pierce won his first NBA title in 10 seasons as the Celtics beat the Lakers in six games. Boston clinched it with a 131-92 win at home for its ninth title in 11 finals matchups with the Lakers.

But Artest didn’t join the Lakers until last July.

Pierce averaged 18.3 points per game in the regular season, and 19.1 over the first three rounds in the postseason. He averaged 24.3 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic, collecting 31 points and 13 rebounds in the clincher.

But he scored just 13 points per game as Boston and Los Angeles split their two-game season series.

“I matched up with (Artest) the last 10, 11 years. He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever played against,” Pierce said. “He’ll try anything just to try to get into his opponent’s head. But I think just from playing against him over the years I’ve become used to the things that he tries to do and I just try to go out there and play my game, not really get into the antics with him.”

Artest relieves Kobe Bryant of the burden of defending the opponent’s best scorer, allowing the Lakers star to focus more on his own offense.

Artest “makes a difference,” Boston Coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s been perfect because it’s allowed Kobe not to have to guard the best player every night. … You can see it in Kobe’s (offensive numbers). He’s as fresh as I’ve ever seen him in the playoffs, and I think it’s due to Ron Artest.”

Bryant scored 37 points Saturday night in the 111-103 win over the Phoenix Suns that put the Lakers in the finals, his 10th 30-point playoff game in his last 11.

Artest also can score. He hit the winning layup at the buzzer in Game 5 then scored 25 points to help the Lakers clinch the Western Conference finals in Game 6 in Phoenix.

Artest and his teammates will play before a friendly crowd Thursday that will include a small pocket of Pierce fans.

“My friends,” Pierce said, “really grew up (as) L.A. fans and, all of a sudden, are Celtic fans because of me. So it’s a little weird for them and family.”

The crowd for Game 1 of the best-of-seven series will see the newest installment of a rivalry that goes back more than 50 years — to the 1959 finals when Boston swept the Minneapolis Lakers in four games. The franchises clashed in six finals in the ’60s.

Then came the ’80s and three Larry Bird-Magic Johnson championship rounds, two of them won by the Lakers.

It took more than 20 years for the teams to match up again in 2008 when the Celtics captured their NBA-high 17th title.

Another championship would mean “everything,” Pierce said. “Hopefully, it can move me up the ranks as one of the top Celtics players of all time and maybe in NBA history.”


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