NBA: Celtics 97, Cavaliers 92
By Howard Ulman
BOSTON ó Paul Pierce hit a shot. Then LeBron James answered. Pierce hit another and so did James.
It was like that all game long, two of the NBA’s best trying to carry their teams to the next round. Pierce and the Boston Celtics succeeded, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-92 on Sunday.
Twenty years earlier there was another thrilling shootout in another seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston ó Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins.
And the result was the same: a narrow Celtics victory that sent them to the conference finals against Detroit.
Pierce scored 41 points, James had 45 and Boston remained unbeaten in the playoffs at home, where the first two games against the Pistons will be played Tuesday and Thursday night.
“It is a great feeling,” Pierce said. “We knew this was going to be a tough, tough series.”
In a seven-game series in which the road team never won, the Celtics had many green-clad fans on their side. Lucky the Mascot held up a sign reading “ROCK THE GARDEN!” and the crowd roared. Pierce got the loudest ovation when he was introduced with his nickname, “The Truth.”
And when the game started, one fan bellowed, “Not today, LeBron.”
It wasn’t Wilkins’ day on May 22, 1988, even though he outscored Bird in Boston’s 118-116 win over Atlanta at the old Boston Garden. Wilkins finished with 47 points, 16 in the fourth quarter, and Bird had 34, with 20 in the final period.
“I’m very aware of the game,” Pierce said. “They don’t ever let you forget it when you look up to the jumbotron.”
James has seen plenty of highlights of that mano-a-mano tussle.
“We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again,” he said. “I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did.
“This will go down in history.”
Pierce hit 13 of 23 shots and James went 14-for-29.
Celtics executive vice president Danny Ainge, who played in that 1988 game, called Sunday’s shootout “an epic battle.”
The Celtics have won 14 straight games at home and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They are 0-6 in the postseason on the road.
“Before the year our goal was to be there in Game 1 at home (in the conference finals) and that’s where we are,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “So we’re exactly where we should be.”
Home teams are 22-2 in the second round of theplayoffs. The Celtics never trailed Sunday but they never were safe until the final seconds.
Pierce hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left for the final points, then James missed a 3-pointer on the last shot of the game with 4.4 seconds to go.
“I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn’t let up,” Pierce said. “Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose.”
Sasha Pavlovic’s 3-pointer made it 95-92 with 8.6 seconds left and the Cavaliers immediately fouled Pierce. His first shot hit the rim, hung in the air, then fell through as the crowd roared. Pierce said team patriarch Red Auerbach, who died in October 2006 at age 89, had something to do with that.
“The ghost of Red just looking over us,” Pierce said. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction. It sort of put a smile on my face.”
Pierce’s second free throw was much smoother, making it 97-92.
Cleveland raced downcourt and James hoisted a 3-pointer that missed with 4.4 seconds to go. The Cavaliers got the rebound and James waved for the ball from the same spot he had just missed from.
But Eddie House intercepted the pass. James turned and walked toward his bench, his chances of reaching the East finals dashed on the court where the Cavaliers were 0-6 this season.