Coach Doc Rivers and his Celtics envisioned an Eastern Conference finals showdown against the longtime NBA power Pistons. What the Celtics couldn't have predicted is the long and tough road to make that happen.
The Celtics advanced to the Eastern finals by defeating the Cavaliers, 97-92, in an amazing Game 7 at TD Banknorth Garden yesterday. The East's top seed now will play host to the second-seeded Pistons starting tomorrow night. The Celtics are making their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2002 and won two seven-game series to get there, first subduing the Atlanta Hawks.
Boston won the season series over Detroit, two games to one.
"Before [the season began], people thought it'd be us and Detroit in the Eastern finals, and we believed that too," Rivers said. "We just wanted it to start at home in Boston. They are a great team. Flip Saunders is a great coach. They've been together longer.
"They've been through all the wars longer. Having gone through these two [rounds] has to have helped us a little bit, too. It will be a good series."
Boston is now 8-0 in the postseason at the Garden, but it also is 0-6 on the road.
"We knew this was going to be a tough, tough series," forward Paul Pierce said. "You got to understand Cleveland is a team that has been to the [NBA] Finals from a year ago, so they know what it's like to make a run through the playoffs, and we knew they weren't going to be no easy knockout. You kind of expected the game to be like this."
Said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, "I am proud of my team and hurt at the same time."
On May 22, 1988, one of the most memorable shootouts in NBA history occurred when Celtics star Larry Bird scored 34 points and the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins had 47 in a Game 7 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston. Just like yesterday, the Celtics finished with a victory, 118-116.
What may be soon seen as "The Shootout Part II" took place yesterday, as two All-Stars dueled it out in Pierce and Cleveland's LeBron James. Pierce had 41 points on 13-of-23 shooting from the field, four 3-pointers, 11 made free throws, and 5 assists in 44 minutes. James had a game-high 45 points on 14-of-29 shooting, three 3-pointers, 14 made free throws, and 6 assists.
"Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose. Just to be a part of something like this and be on the winning side of it is a great feeling, man," Pierce said.
"[Pierce] played extremely well and that's the reason why they're going to the next round and we're not," said James.
After stealing the ball from Pierce, James's fast-break dunk sliced Boston's lead to 89-88 with 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. Celtics reserve forward P.J. Brown (10 points, 6 rebounds) followed with a 20-foot jumper with 1:21 remaining to push his team ahead, 91-88.
"I felt good, the ball came to me, Eddie [House] threw me a nice pass, I felt the rhythm, and took the shot," Brown said.
Struggling guard Ray Allen (4 points) nailed two free throws with 18.8 seconds left to give Boston a 93-88 lead. Pierce was called for a foul on James with 16.5 seconds left. James missed the first free throw and sank the second to trim Boston's lead to 93-89.
With 16.2 seconds left, House nailed two free throws to give Boston a 95-89 advantage. But Cleveland wasn't ready to die and Sasha Pavlovic's 3-pointer with 8.6 seconds left to cut Boston's lead to 95-92.
Just 0.7 seconds later, Pierce went back to the line to shoot two. His first attempt hit off the rim, bounced high in the air, and somehow fell through. He nailed the second to seal the win, and after the game Pierce thanked the late, great Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach for helping that first free throw fall.
"The ghost of Red was just looking over us," Pierce said. "I wish he was here today to be here with us, but I just think that's him looking over us that guided that ball in."
The Celtics will play their 11th game in 22 days tomorrow night in Game 1 of the East finals. The Pistons will be playing for the first time in a week. But don't expect the Celtics to complain. Boston is alive, and how it got there doesn't matter right now.
"We work so hard from the preseason on to now, and now we get an opportunity to go to the championship and play against Detroit with an opportunity," Pierce said.
Forward Kevin Garnett, who added 13 points and 13 rebounds, said: "We will enjoy this, but as we advance it does get a little more difficult. Detroit obviously's been resting, been waiting, and we've played 14 hard games."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org