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Bob Ryan

Remember, it's only one

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2008

Don't get cocky. Resist the urge to fire off that sarcastic e-mail to your old college roommate currently residing in Reseda. Just appreciate the fact that the championship of the world's greatest basketball league is once again being played in this town and that your Celtics are now one step closer to title No. 17.

It may not go down as a great game, but it was plenty recognizable as NBA basketball, and, in particular, 2007-08 Boston Celtics basketball. Holding the high-powered Los Angeles Lakers to 37 points in the second half, the Celtics defeated their ancient foe by a 98-88 score last night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Kobe Bryant did not go off. But he will. He played a game very reminiscent of the two he came up with in Boston's two regular-season (Yes, we know: pre-Gasol) triumphs, shooting a shaky 9 for 26 while only threatening to take over the game. A few more like that and the Celtics will be making parade plans. Ah, don't count on it.

But there was a little lesson to be gleaned from last night's affair, and that was the following: The Celtics have a guy who can mess up your defensive plans, too. I'll say it again. Paul Pierce is the most explosive offensive force who has ever put on a Celtics uniform, and he proved it in the third quarter when he scored 15 vital points as the Celtics turned a 51-46 halftime deficit into a 77-73 advantage and were able to protect it in the fourth, when the Lakers were never able to creep closer than 3 points (81-78).

Pierce did his vital third-quarter scoring in two bursts, sandwiched around a mysterious injury to his right knee. He started the third by taking a Kevin Garnett feed and laying in power lefthanded layup. He followed that by up-faking Vladimir Radmanovic, drawing contact, and then banking a three from the far right reaches of the Celtics' kingdom. This time, in contrast to the goings-on in Auburn Hills, Mich., he got the call, and he sank the free throw for an honest-to-God 4-point play. Bryant hit a jumper, but Pierce responded with a jumper in the lane, giving him 8 points in the first 1:13.

"That flurry they came out with in the third quarter put us back on our heels," said Laker mentor Phil Jackson.

The great drama came at the 6:52 mark of the period, when Bryant scored on a runner to cut the Celtics' lead to 62-58 and Pierce went down on the baseline, grabbing his right knee. He looked to be in great distress, and he was carried off the floor. No one had a handle on what had happened, and there was no way to regard this as anything less than The End Of Everything.

The anxiety lasted exactly 1 minute 45 seconds, which is how long it took Pierce to emerge from the locker room. It may have taken the fans a half-second to start thinking about a certain No. 33, who made a dramatic return to action after slamming his head on the ol' parquet in Game 5 of the 1991 Indiana series.

Larry Bird came back strong in that one, and Pierce came back strong in this one. The Lakers were leading, 71-69, on a Kobe right-corner turnaround when Pierce came down and drilled a right-wing three in transition to give the Celtics a lead they would never relinquish. P.J. Brown, whose 21-minute relief stint should have earned him the equivalent of a basketball "Hold," blocked a Lamar Odom baseline drive and Pierce hit a second 3-pointer in transition, sending the joyous crowd into a "Beat LA!" frenzy.

The Celtics have framed themselves as a defensive team all season, which is why neither Doc Rivers nor anyone on his staff was pleased with the Green and White performance in the first half. The Lakers shot 50 percent from the floor, and they had an impressive total of 14 assists affixed to their 19 baskets. Too many people were just too open, and it's never good for a team when Kobe shoots a tepid 3 for 10 and the Lakers are still leading by 5 points (51-46).

But that all changed in the second half, when the Lakers shot 13 for 39. They will, no doubt, cite painful in-and-outs, but the fact is they continually fired and missed.

"In the second half we did our job," Rivers observed. "We got back on defense, for the most part, and we contested shots. I mean, that's how we have to play. I really thought we got away with something in the first half because we didn't have the defensive energy we played with all year. Who knows why? But we didn't. We didn't make any adjustments, and that's how we have to play."

If the Pierce thing was a scary moment for the fans, try being the coach who has just had his entire season flash in front of his eyes. "I'm going to tell you what I've told the guys who have been here," said Rivers. " 'Doc' is a nickname. It's not for real."

When Pierce did return, Rivers put him back out there on a short leash.

"I was watching him, " Rivers said, "and if he didn't move well I was going to take him out, and we have till Sunday to get him right, and that was my thinking. But then he moved OK, so it was no big deal."

But Paul Pierce was still a subplot. The main theme was style of play. When you get beyond all the matchups and all the hype, what was always going to determine the outcome was which team would more often impose its will on the other. In Game 1, that team was the Boston Celtics, who played what they like to think of as "their" game in the second half.

It was a fun game, but it was one game. Celtics fans are entitled to a slight Mona Lisa grin, but the smirking and the laughing have got to wait. You know what they say: Act like you've been here before. And if you haven't, your father has.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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