Pierce and Lebron’s Epic Battle
Paul Pierce stood at the free throw line, stoically, mentally preparing for the uncontested shot he was about to take.
The Celtics led 95-92 with seven seconds left in Game 7 against Cleveland, and after the array of jays he had dropped in a for-the-ages showdown with Lebron James, a single point from the charity stripe seemed like a mere footnote on excellence.
The referee bounced the rock to Paul. A chant started to reverberate throughout The Garden, the timing of which was–to say the least–peculiar.
“M-V-P, M-V-P!!, M-V-P!!!!!” sang out the crowd nearly in unison.
Then, as if sensing its visceral reaction was slightly misplaced and maybe premature, the stadium came to a prompt hush as Pierce was about to release the ball.
As he let it go, his face said it all. Long. Way long.
What happened next was a little mysterious, and the rest miraculous. The ball unorthodoxly bounced off the back rim, up and away … then back down again, passing through the nylon on its way.
Paul’s expression went from horror to elation in, well, a single bounce of the ball.
His 40th point gave the Celtics a 96-92 lead. Moments later, his 41st point closed out the scoring of a masterpiece seventh-game.
After a spectacle throughout which–at worst–Paul’s shots deigned to hit the rim, you had to wonder: Did the “MVP” chant momentarily strip Pierce of his focus or did he simply clank a free throw at the most inopportune and unlikely time?
In the postgame press conference, Paul didn’t articulate his thoughts behind the brick, but he seemed sure of how the ball managed to find its way into the cylinder.
“It’s the ghost of Red just looking over us,” he said. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction and it went through the net, and it put a smile on my face.”
If it was indeed the restless spirit of Red Auerbach, it’s fitting that the departed Celtics patriarch found a way to make his presence felt in this epic Game 7.
It was the proverbial takes-years-off-your-life cardiac affair, rife with pulsating drama, cascades of emotion, and history in the making. The kind of game that used to take place regularly when Red’s cigar still burned on the sideline.
Staged in tandem by the league’s global icon and one of its underrated superstars, played on its most fabled hardwood beneath 16 championship banners, the underrated superstar–carrying the legacies of many men on his back–simply refused to let the global icon (45 points) write the next chapter of his own legacy.
Paul and Lebron. Lebron and Paul.
The two, playing ostensibly a surreal game of one-on-one, went blow for blow. It was Bird-‘Nique and Ali-Frazier-esque. It brought back memories that any Celtics fan under the age of 30 only has through family anecdotes, ESPN Classic and YouTube.
When it was over and the Celtics had prevailed, survived, escaped–however you want to put it–the clock read 6:31 pm. Afternoon may have turned into evening outside on Causeway Street, but inside TD Banknorth Garden for three hours on a Sunday, time stood still.
Again and again Lebron tormented better than 18,000 rowdy proponents of Celtic pride. Sometimes he exhibited brute power by forcing his way to the basket; others he deftly utilized high screens to bury threes.
Over and over Pierce responded.
“Tonight was basically ‘get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way’,” said a revering Kevin Garnett at the podium next to Pierce. “Ya’ll don’t have to ask any questions, that was the game plan.”
From the opening tip Paul dazzled with his jumpers, dug deep to man up Lebron in key situations defensively, and then delivered the psychological knockout blow, slipping by Lebron in pursuit of a crucial jump ball with the Celtics nursing a 91-88 lead in the last minute. He tipped the ball away from James, raced towards midcourt, dove and secured it before calling a timeout.
The house erupted as Pierce lay on the parquet with the basketball still clenched in his arms, fists pounding, exhausted, soaking in the imminence of victory. Once again, his body language spoke for itself.
Afterwards, Lebron succinctly put the pervasive feeling into words: “Obviously Game 7 in The Garden, I knew this was history. This will go down in history.”
“I look forward to seeing it on [ESPN] Classic in three or four days,” Garnett added.