In an epic Game 7, Paul Pierce (41 points on 23 shots) played LeBron James (45 on 29) to a virtual draw that enabled the Celtics to stave off an extended Cavaliers comeback after trailing Boston by 13 in the second quarter. The showdown raised memories of the Game 7 duel in the old Boston Garden between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins two decades ago. "The fans came to see Paul Pierce and LeBron James play," said James, recalling a brief conversation he shared with Pierce (pictured) during a break in the second half. "Which guy is going to lead his team to victory? They came to see us play, so let's give the fans something to remember. These fans finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did, and remember what Paul and LeBron did. Two great guys just going at it, two of the best in the league. It was very exciting to be a part of it, especially in this building."
Pierce had a legendary Game 7 performance. He drove incessantly to the basket, even though he didn't earn a free throw until 5:06 remained in the half. The Cavs doubled him soft and hard and he dealt with both defenses, either splitting through the coverage with drives or hitting the difficult fallaway jumpers that had been missing from his inventory for much of these playoffs. "I'm very aware of the game," said Pierce of the Wilkins-Bird duel, "and they don't ever let you forget it when you look up to the jumbotron. I took a number of 15-footers that I know I can make right there off the dribble, so I thought it was well within the flow of the offense. The ball was just coming to me, I felt great and I was just letting it ride tonight."
Kevin Garnett had been the Celtics' reliable go-to scorer of this series, but on Sunday he produced 13 points and 13 rebounds as a complement to Pierce. This was the formula the Celtics had been seeking -- with Pierce as the provocative scorer getting into the paint and Garnett as a tremendous secondary option -- and it took the pressure of a Game 7 to deliver it. "Tonight was very simple," said Garnett. "Get the ball to Paul Pierce, get the hell out of the way. That's exactly what it was. That was the game plan. That was what we did."
In the final 30 seconds of the half, with 24 points already to his credit, Pierce stole a pass and drove the open court only to be sideswiped by Sasha Pavlovic, careening Pierce into a TV cameraman sitting under the basket. Pierce lay on his back for a half-minute as teammates and athletic trainer Ed Lacerte leaned over him. After a 20-second timeout he limped out to the free throw line and made both shots before retiring to the lockerroom to a standing ovation with 4.2 seconds remaining. Pierce underwent a massage for his left thigh bruise; he looked stiff and slow to open the third quarter but recovered to go 5 of 8 for 15 points in the second half.
The Cavs were trailing 29-23 with 7:20 left in the second quarter when coach Mike Brown subbed out both Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James, leaving an offense-poor lineup to face a Boston five that included Pierce and Garnett. The Celtics quickly took advantage with Garnett assisting a wide-open James Posey for a corner three to launch a brief but significant 7-0 run. James went back to the scorer's table with 6:31 left, but by the time he touched the ball again, his Cavs had a 12-point deficit (35-23) from which they never recovered.
Cleveland inched within 89-88 with 2:20 remaining when James stripped the ball clean out of Pierce's hands as he tried to pass out of a double-team and instantly converted the turnover into an open-floor slam. "When you have those turnovers down the stretch," said Boston coach Doc Rivers, "you can easily go the other way and start overpassing and getting tentative. But I think [Pierce] even got better after that, and so I was really happy for him."
P.J. Brown responded to James' ominous dunk by canning an open 15-footer to restore the Celtics lead to 91-88 and soothe nerves in the Garden. Brown, who came out of semi-retirement after Pierce ran into him during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans and coaxed him to sign with the Celtics, produced 20 big minutes off the bench while making all four of his shots for 10 points to go with six rebounds and five necessary fouls. Brown played 10 minutes in the fourth quarter and helped provide the decisive stop on a James drive that he was forced to airball long; the Celtics recovered the miss and Ray Allen's ensuing free throws with 18.8 seconds left gave Boston its clinching 93-88 lead. "I wasn't expecting to play that much, I really wasn't," said Brown. "As far as the shot goes, I wasn't brought here for that. I was definitely not brought here to shoot last-second shots."
The Celtics continue with an every-other-day schedule beginning Tuesday with the conference finals against Detroit, which hasn't played since finishing off the Orlando Magic in five games May 13. "Detroit's obviously been resting, been waiting, and we've played 14 hard games," said Garnett. While the Celtics rediscovered backup guard Eddie House in this series -- he played 15 reliable minutes in Game 7, including most of the final 2:20 -- they must resuscitate guards Sam Cassell, who didn't play in Game 7 but will be needed against Chauncey Billups, and Ray Allen, who was 1 of 6 for 4 points Sunday and finished the series shooting 32.8 percent for 9.3 points as the Celtics' fourth option behind Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo.
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