How many times had they seen Paul Pierce tumble to the floor, only to spring to his feet?
How many times had they witnessed The Captain driving to the basket, drawing contact, and shaking it off?
This time, however, was different. Much different. The sellout crowd of 18,624 at TD Banknorth Garden held its collective breath when Pierce let out a scream after Kendrick Perkins stepped on his right ankle and caused Pierce's right knee to twist and pop, leaving him writhing on the court and clutching his right leg.
A hush fell over the building.
"Well, when I first fell to the ground, I heard a pop in my knee, and all I felt was pain when I grabbed it," Pierce said. "And at that point, I thought it was just - I thought I tore something. That's the way I felt at the time. Usually when I go down, I'm getting right back up, but it was an instance where I turned my knee and it popped, heard it pop, and I was just in pain where I just couldn't move."
Suddenly, all that the Celtics had worked so hard to achieve during the regular season - home-court advantage with the NBA's best record - and throughout their playoff run to the NBA Finals was in peril. It seemed to unravel with 6:49 remaining in the third quarter of Game 1 last night with the Celtics trailing the Lakers, 62-58.
Pierce remained down for the better part of three minutes as team doctor Brian McKeon and trainer Ed Lacerte attended to him. "When he wasn't really responding, it was like, uh-oh," said Kevin Garnett. "What's going on?"
The crowd gasped when Pierce had to be carried off the court by Brian Scalabrine, who was in street clothes, and Tony Allen, who had just been activated for Game 1 after straining his right Achilles' in practice during the Eastern finals. His teammates got him to a wheelchair, in which he was taken to the locker room.
"Honestly, I thought the worst," said coach Doc Rivers. "When they carried Paul off - I've had the injury. I've seen it. I just assumed it was the knee."
It was the knee, as everyone suspected, but it was diagnosed as a strained right meniscus, not a tear, as everyone had feared. Once he was able to get into the locker room and put weight on it, Pierce knew he needed to get back on the court.
When he returned to the court with 5:04 remaining, ushered back by a loud ovation, Pierce, who had scored the Celtics' first 8 points of the second half before getting injured, made his presence felt when he buried back-to-back 3-pointers that put Boston ahead, 75-71. It was the highlight of his 22-point performance on 7-for-10 shooting from the field, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, in the Celtics' 98-88 win.
Asked what thoughts ran through his mind as he was being carried off the court, Pierce said, "I thought that was it. I mean, I thought - a lot of things [were] going through my mind. I thought I tore something. Once I heard the pop, and I couldn't move it at first, I thought that was it.
"I really didn't test it until I got to the back but, obviously, it's in pain right now," he added. "The doctor said I have a strained meniscus. We'll see how it feels tomorrow and the next day and go from there."
Although Lakers coach Phil Jackson downplayed the emotional impact Pierce's return had on the crowd - "What helped them out were those two threes that he hit, not coming back out on the floor," he said - it had a palpable effect on the Celtics.
"When he came out, you just heard the roar of the crowd," Garnett said. "He was walking, he was up on his own strength, and he rejuvenated us, I think, to the point where he gave everybody life. Defense picked up a little bit. I could tell that everybody was rejuvenated. It was good to see him be OK and in action."
Asked about his status for Game 2 Sunday, Pierce said, "We'll see. I mean, it's in pain. I was able to get through tonight. I don't know if it was off adrenaline or what, but I got through it. But when I saw the replay out back, I was guarding Kobe [Bryant] at the time and I challenged a shot. When I came down, Perkins came down on my foot, and at the same time, I turned my leg when he was on it, and I think that's how I twisted the knee."
That's when he went down, without popping back up.
"One thing we know about P is he's very tough," Garnett said. "We've seen him play through numerous injuries. There were times when we thought he wasn't going to play, [but] he played. He played his best, if you ask me."