Paul Pierce was exhausted. His knees wrapped with ice, Pierce limped to the interview room and sat on the floor while Cavaliers coach Mike Brown was wrapping up his postgame press conference.
“I’m tired,” he said to no one in particular.
He had every right to be.
Pierce poured in 41 points this afternoon for the Celtics, matching LeBron James blow-for-blow and making reporters wax nostalgic about a Game 7 in the 1988 playoffs between Larry Bird’s Celtics and Dominque Wilkins’ Atlanta Hawks.
“I’m very aware of [that game],” said Pierce. “They don’t ever let you forget it when you look up at the Jumbotron.”
In addition to watching film of old games, Pierce has for years tried to carry the torch and bring some modern relevance to the Celtics mystique. He had a relationship with the late Red Auerbach, and he often spoke of trying to bring the Celtics into title contention when Auerbach was alive.
With a chance to close out the game tonight at the free throw line with 7 seconds left, Pierce got a fortuitous bounce off the rim before his foul shot dropped and put the Celtics up by four. After the shot, a close-up of Auerbach’s No. 2, which hangs in the rafters at the Garden, was shown on the Jumbotron.
“It’s the ghost of Red just looking over us,” said Pierce. “I wish he was here today. I just think that’s him looking over us that guided that ball in. I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction and it went through the net.”
On his matchup with James, Pierce said he didn’t do anything outside of the flow of the offense. He was 13 of 23 from the field and admitted he only forced a couple of shots. (The stats counter a statement by Kevin Garnett, who joked “Tonight was basically ‘Get the ball to Paul Pierce, get the hell out of the way.’”)
James (45 points) is also a student of the game, and the significance of his battle with Pierce was not lost on him.
“I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7 [today], these fans finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did,” said James. “Two great guys just going at it. Two of the best league. “It was very exciting to be a part of it, especially in this building. Like I said, Game 7 in the Garden, it gets no better than this. As a fan of basketball, I know so much about the history… this will go down in history.”
In addition to going back in time, James said Pierce is one of the best players currently in the NBA.
“Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players,” he said. “As a fan, when I watch Paul Pierce, I love the way he plays the game of basketball. I always say, second to Kobe Bryant, he has some of the best footwork I’ve ever seen in a player. I love going against the best, and Paul Pierce is one of those guys.”