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A return to glory at the Garden

Pierce shakes off injury to pace Celtics, 98-88

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / June 6, 2008

It goes down in Hub hardwood history as the Miracle on Causeway Street. Paul Pierce and his chariot of fire.

Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird enjoyed some great moments in the old Boston gym, but not one of those Garden gods ever vaulted out of a wheelchair to lead the Celtics to victory in the NBA Finals.

That's what Paul Pierce did in Boston's 98-88 win over the Lakers in Game 1 last night. Carried off the floor midway through the third quarter, placed in a chair that made him look like an ER patient at Massachusetts General Hospital, Pierce returned after a 1-minute-45-second absence, drilled a couple of stake-driving 3-pointers, and willed the Green to victory.

Pierce clutched his right knee after collapsing in a heap under the basket near the Celtic bench.

"Once I heard a pop, I couldn't move it at first," said Pierce, who scored 22 points. "It went through my head - 'Man, it can't be over like this.' . . . I thought that was it."

He rode a wheelchair to the Celtics' locker room, only to emerge seconds later to hit the crucial jumpers as the Celtics took the lead for keeps. Pierce made 5 of 5 from the floor in the same quarter in which he rode in the wheel chair.

"The guy grabbed his knee," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "It was great to see him come back. Him coming back lifted us up."

Seeing the Celtics and Lakers back in the NBA Finals triggered memories of bygone days when dinosaurs ruled the earth and basketball royalty ran on the parquet floor of the Old Boston Garden. Pro basketball's championship round has inflated to World Series/Super Bowl proportions since Boston and Los Angeles last met in the Finals in 1987, and there was considerable star power on the court and the sidelines when the Celtics and Lakers tapped off just after 9 p.m.

The pregame festivities were electric. Waiting 21 years will do that; the NBA is big on presentation and Boston was treated to all the trimmings in the Celtics' return to the Finals. It amounts to an audio/video assault of the senses, but nobody minds when the Celtics are being celebrated. Bill Russell and John Havlicek were among the Boston basketball royalty in the house. It was nice to have a championship game played on the Red Auerbach court.

Pau Gasol broke the lid for the first basket of the Finals. Garnett (24 points) tied it a minute later. A spectacular drive and dunk by Garnett made it 10-10 midway through the first as the crowd settled in for a night of thrills, chills, and spills.

Kobe Bryant (24 points) did not score in the first six minutes. Wearing the number (24) worn by Manny Ramírez and Sam Jones, Kobe passed off for most of the first quarter, letting Gasol do most of the work on offense. The Celtics led, 23-21, after one.

"I missed some bunnies," said Bryant, who shot 9 of 26. "I'll be thinking about those for a couple of nights."

The benches went at one another at the start of the second and held serve until the starters returned. The Lakers led, 51-46, at intermission. Boston's vaunted defense allowed the Lakers to shoot 50 percent in the first half. The signs were all bad.

"We didn't play the defense that we played all year in that half," said Rivers. "They got a lot of open shots. We can be better defensively for two halves."

Pierce came out flying after halftime, scoring 8 straight points, but he went down when teammate Kendrick Perkins crashed into him on a Bryant drive to the basket. Pierce appeared to aggravate his right knee and things looked dire when he was carried off the floor. (Perkins went out late in the third with a sprained ankle and did not return.)

Precisely 1:45 after leaving the court, Pierce reappeared from the tunnel and checked back into the game. A festivus miracle. It was mildly reminiscent of Bird's return after slamming his face on the floor in a home playoff game against the Pacers in 1991. Or Willis Reed's return against the Lakers in the 1970 Finals.

"I thought he moved pretty well, but I was watching him closely," said Rivers. "He moved OK, so it was no big deal."

Pierce's crucial threes came in a span of 22 seconds. Boston led the rest of the way.

"What helped them out were those two threes that he hit, not coming back on the floor," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

"I don't know how much him coming back really changed the game," said LA's Derek Fisher.

That's not the way history will be written. In Game 1 of the 2008 Finals, Pierce created a memory worthy of the best of Kareem, Magic, Larry, or the Cooz.

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