AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — After being dead for years, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry finally came back to life last night.
The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals by defeating the Detroit Pistons, 89-81, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Boston won its 20th conference crown and will make its first Finals appearance since 1987. The Celtics will play the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals for the 11th time, having won eight.
“I’m just happy to be a part of this, man,” said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who scored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. “It’s been a long process. I could write a whole book on my emotions right now. But I’m just happy to be in this position, still with the Boston Celtics.
“It makes me think about a year ago today what I was doing. To be in this position with the same team going to the Finals, it’s nothing I can really put into words.”
Game 1 of the Finals is Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden. Celtics legend John Havlicek presented the Eastern Conference championship trophy.
Once the final buzzer sounded, Kevin Garnett kissed the basketball, Pierce and coach Doc Rivers hugged, and the rest of the players began celebrating, donning East champion hats and T-shirts.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Garnett, who scored 16 points. “It’s kind of surreal, probably hasn’t even hit me yet because we haven’t slept in about four days, going on five days now. Going to the Finals. I’m just hoping to get some sleep. But it does feel good.”
Said Rivers, “We want to be here, and we’re at the exact spot that we thought we would be. But we have some more playing to do.”
The Celtics own 16 NBA titles, the Lakers 14. Boston won the season series, 2-0, but the rivalry had been dormant since the retirements of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the early 1990s.
But as the Celtics chanted, “Beat LA!, Beat LA!,” after the game, it was easy to see that the intensity of the old rivalry was officially back.
“I’m looking forward to it, all the things I used to watch on Sunday, that big plate of food in front of me watching the Lakers and Celtics play on Sunday, Hubie Brown and Dick Stockton doing the game,” Garnett said. “I remember that like it was yesterday. Fire going, I’m gonna grab me a seat right in front. Mom telling me, ‘Don’t get too close to the TV, it’ll kill your eyes.’ I remember it like it was yesterday, man. I’m looking forward to this.”
The Celtics entered the fourth quarter trailing, 68-60. But Garnett’s turnaround jumper with 8:30 remaining brought Boston to 70-69. Pierce’s 3-point play with 5:25 left gave Boston a 75-74 lead. During the ensuing timeout, Havlicek left his seat and headed off the floor in case he was needed to present the trophy.
Pierce hit two free throws to give the Celtics a 79-74 lead. After a jumper by Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace, Garnett canned a 13-foot jumper with 3:39 left to keep Boston ahead by 5, 81-76.
Chauncey Billups’s 3-point play with 2:24 remaining sliced Detroit’s deficit to 83-79. After Rondo missed a 3-pointer, James Posey sneaked behind Tayshaun Prince to steal the ball. After being fouled, Pierce made two free throws with 1:35 left to give Boston an 85-70 lead.
With Boston up 85-79, Garnett missed an opportunity to seal the game when he missed two free throws with 36.3 seconds remaining. After Wallace missed a 3-pointer with 31.9 seconds left, Posey got the rebound and gave the ball to Pierce. Pierce was fouled with 30.7 seconds left and made 1 of 2 to give Boston an 86-79 lead. After a missed 3-pointer by Richard Hamilton, Allen made two free throws with 22.5 seconds left to seal a trip to the Finals.
“It was right there, and Lord knows I didn’t want to go back to Boston for another Game 7,” Pierce said.
Said Pistons coach Flip Saunders, “It’s tough as a team to go through the season that they did and the grind that they have as the No. 1 seed, to be where they’re at when everyone is shooting for them.”
As a kid, Pierce was a huge Lakers fan who hated the Celtics. Now, he is hoping for a Hollywood ending with his Celtics beating the Lakers.
“It means everything to Boston fans,” Pierce said. “To me, I think that’s what pretty much got me started in basketball, growing up in Los Angeles, watching the Lakers and the Celtics, and it’s ironic, just being a Celtic, growing up, now you’re playing against the Lakers in the Finals.
“As a kid, I hated the Celtics. I’m going back home to play against my team that I grew up watching. It’s a dream come true, man, just thinking about it. I think that rivalry really revolutionized the game of basketball, and now I’m a part of it.”
This story will appear in Saturday’s Boston Globe