No. 2 is watching, somewhere. And No. 34 made him awfully proud today.
Paul Pierce went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and carried the Celtics past the Cavaliers, 97-92, in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series this afternoon at the TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics win the series, 4-3, and advance to play the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With his team up three, Pierce nailed two free throws with seven seconds left to put the game out of reach for the Cavs. After the free throws, a close-up of Red Auerbach’s No. 2 was shown on the Jumbotron. It was a fitting moment.
James certainly did his part, leading all scorers with 45 points. But in the end, Pierce did him one better. Pierce literally matched James shot-for-shot in the third quarter, as both players went 3 for 5 in the third for 9 points.
Pierce had 26 points in the first half and finished with 41 points for the game.
The Celtics were up by 5 after three, but Cleveland stayed within striking distance. A steal and a dunk by James brought the Cavs to within one, 89-88, with 2:20 left in the game.
After a miss by James at one end and Kevin Garnett at the other, unlikely contributor P.J. Brown nailed a jumper with 1:21 left to put the Celtics up by 3.
On Cleveland’s next possession, West missed a three, but the ensuing melee for the rebound produced a jump ball between James Posey and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas tipped the ball back on the jump, but another scramble ended with Pierce falling on the ball and calling timeout. Celtics ball, with 58.1 seconds left.
The Celtics wasted their next possession, with Pierce dribbling out the clock and finding Garnett for a long jumper that missed. Down 3 and with the ball, the Cavs still had life.
The NBA’s best player had the ball, but James missed a runner on the other end with 25 seconds left and the Celtics got the rebound. The Cavs were forced to foul, and Ray Allen nailed two free throws with 18.8 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.
While James provided Cleveland’s only offense in the first half (no other Cavalier had more than 4 points at the break), Delonte West sparked the Cavs with 11 points in the third quarter. West’s contributions helped cut a 10-point halftime to 5.
Allen struggled again for the Celtics. Usually deadly from long range, Allen was just 1 of 6 from the field and 0 of 2 on 3-pointers. Garnett finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
The crowd was loud throughout, but the fans were very vocal on a couple of calls that didn’t go Boston’s way. On one play, James grabbed Pierce’s jersey to prevent Pierce from getting to a loose ball that eventually went out of bounds. No foul was called.
They’ll be back to cheer on their Celtics Tuesday, when the C’s face the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
We’ll have plenty of postgame reaction from the Garden, so keep it here.