Wednesday October 29th, 2008

They were perfect. The video said so. The memories of last season unwound on the scoreboard as the Celtics started their new season by celebrating last year. The moving pictures made fact into fantasy. They never missed: Every move led to a dunk last year, every shot went through the basket, every bounce fell their way.

In hindsight, they had been edited and recast as a team of destiny, as if the Cleveland Cavaliers never really had a chance to beat them in that unnervingly tight Game 7 of the Eastern semis just five months ago. Though LeBron James remembers differently. He and his teammates waited out of sight in their locker room Tuesday night while Boston celebrated its championship, then the Cavaliers appeared on the court to out-box the champs for a 22-11 lead in the opening quarter.

Boston's 90-85 win over Cleveland on Opening Night was an ironic demonstration of the dividends that will be paid the Celtics over the six months -- and more ahead. In a way, they must draw strength from what they did; but then again, they need to forget it ever happened.

For this night, at least, Paul Pierce faced the hardest adjustment. As the team captain and longest-tenured Celtic, he was entitled to greet his old Celtic forebears on the court as they marched out single-file bearing the new championship trophy. He wasn't simply in the company of John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and the others anymore; he was one of them. As he lifted the trophy overhead, Pierce was breathing through his mouth. He was sobbing.

Just an hour earlier coach Doc Rivers had shrugged off the rings ceremony: "What better distraction to have than what we're going to go through?'' But that changed when he saw his captain in tears. "I said, 'oh jeez, we're done.'''

The Celtics were in trouble until halftime, when they responded to Rivers' plea to make the extra pass by finding Pierce for 11 points in the third quarter. They kept things tight heading into the fourth, when the Cavaliers were unable to make jumpers, as the Celtics tightened their defensive midsection.

This was the first time Pierce (who finished with 27 points) and James (22 points on 21 shots) had met since they combined for 86 points in Game 7. James was asked before opening night if he had been haunted by playing so well in almost knocking off the eventual champs. "I let go of it quickly,'' said James, who needed to prepare for the Olympics and the gold medal he would help win two months later. But the truth is he didn't let go of that series any more than Pierce did his triumph. James won't forget how he felt last year, but it isn't revenge he wants so much as the reward that Pierce has earned.

During a timeout late in the first half, the Celtics aired scoreboard video of their players being fitted for their rings. No doubt James took notice as he sat in his team's huddle. Less than a minute later he was slamming an alley-oop from Delonte West and landing flat-footed with a snarl.

So overcome was Pierce before this game that he indulged himself while addressing the crowd. He thanked Celtics president Danny Ainge and CEO Wyc Grousbeck, his family and friends and former coaches, but he forgot to share thanks with his teammates. He meant no harm -- it was all he could do to keep from breaking down again -- but it was a damning sign of how easily the past can diminish the present.

"As a kid I've always dreamed of moments like this,'' said Pierce as LeBron and his Cavaliers waited on the sideline for last year to end so they could start fresh. "You never know if this day is ever going to come. I've got my dream come true, the banner up in the rafters.''

For the Celtics to win a game like this was an early sign of their resiliency. Perspective will be crucial in a year like this, and perhaps the night provided some. As the players were coming forth to receive their championship rings like diplomas, complete with music befitting a college graduation, a couple of employees working in the shadows nearby were fixing the rolled-up 17th banner like sails to a mast. It appeared oversized as it was lifted from the floor within touch of the players who won it; as it rose to the ceiling and found its spot in the distance, it looked no different than any of the 16 preceding it. Just like that, last year had joined with the past.

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