In order to take another step toward the 2008 NBA Finals, the Celtics needed to knock off an Eastern Conference powerhouse led by one of the game’s all-time great players.
Following a first-round score from the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, Boston received another tough test from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The second-round series lived up to the hype, with both teams winning all three of their home games leading up to a winner-take-all Game 7 at TD Garden.
The truly great leaders on any team, in any sport, rise to the occasion when all the chips are pushed to the middle, and that’s exactly what James and Paul Pierce did on this mid-May afternoon in Boston. The star forwards set the tone from the get-go, scoring nine points apiece in the opening frame. The second quarter saw even more of an offensive explosion, with Pierce dropping 17 points and James checking in only a shade behind with 14.
James, understanding the gravity of the moment, relied on his strongest assets — strength and athleticism — to stuff the stat sheet, while the ever-savvy Pierce showcased a more well-rounded offensive approach in the first half, highlighted by three 3-pointers. The Celtics legend also was getting it done on the defensive end, evidenced by his game-high plus-15 rating through the opening two quarters.
But as great as the first half was, it paled in comparison to the final two quarters. Pierce and James once again were level on points in the third frame — nine points apiece — which set the stage for a final quarter that basketball diehards never will forget.
James, to his credit, put the Cavaliers on his back and kept the visitors in the game until the bitter end thanks to 13 fourth-quarter points. But he sunk his final field goal with 2:20 left in the game, far too early against a veteran-laden Celtics team that was starving to keep their championship hopes alive. This picture was perfectly painted by a jump ball with a minute to play, which saw Pierce beat James to a loose basketball by diving on the floor, gaining possession and calling a timeout. Clutching on the rock, a fired-up Pierce looked up to the rafters and let out a scream, knowing the finish line was near.
And it was The Truth who put the finish touches on James and company’s 2007-08 season. With the Celtics nursing a three-point lead with 7.9 seconds to go, Pierce knocked down a pair of three throws to put the contest out of reach. James left Boston as the game’s highest scorer with 45 points, but 41 from Pierce were the driving force that sent the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
It was an epic battle of legends worthy of the playoff stage, one both Pierce and James knew was an instant classic even in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
“I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn’t let up,” Pierce told reporters, per ESPN. “Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose.”
James added: “We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again. I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did. This will go down in history.”
Although Pierce undoubtedly deserved the lion’s share of the praise for the Celtics’ season-saving win, he didn’t take all the credit.
“The ghost of Red (Auerbach) just looking over us,” Pierce told reporters. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction. It sort of put a smile on my face.”
Pierce and the Celtics didn’t rest on their laurels following the all-timer against James’ Cavs. Boston dispatched the Detroit Pistons in six games, the same amount of time it took the C’s to eliminate the Los Angeles Lakers and win the 17th Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history.
It was a Celtics playoff run that had no shortage of highlights, and many of them came from the Pierce-James duel that always will be surrounded by basketball lore.