BOSTON — Using the railing to assist him, Paul Pierce gingerly walked up to the stage in the post-game press conference. He walked up the three tiny stairs slowly, as if he were carrying 300 pounds of bricks on his back.
Then when he sat down in front of the microphone about 10 feet away, he groaned quietly, "Oooooohhhhhh."
Pierce had reason to be beat up. He lived through a Game 7, going head-to-head, play-for-play, quarter-for-quarter with the great LeBron James for 43 minutes and 42 seconds.
"My body is so sore," said Pierce. "I'm happy I'm over it. I'm happy I don't have to see him again (this season)."
Pierce didn't beat James. On this day, that would have been impossible. James scored 45 points and almost single-handedly put the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, like he did a year ago against the Detroit Pistons.
Pierce scored 41 points, which seemed more like 60.
The duel, of course, reminded everyone around the basketball world about another duel 20 years ago (May 22, 1988): Boston's Larry Bird vs. Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins.
On that night, also an Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7 matchup, Wilkins scored 47 points (16 in the fourth quarter) and Bird countered with 34 (20 in the quarter) as the Celtics won the game, 118-116.
The difference yesterday was that James' 45 and Pierce's 41 came against defenses more suited for the NFL playoffs.
This duel started from the opening tap. James and Pierce each had nine points in the first quarter followed by 17 from Pierce and 14 from James in the second quarter. They each tallied nine points in the third quarter before James went on a fourth quarter spurt that got the Cavs, who never led, to within one point, at 89-88 after a James steal (off Pierce) and dunk.
As for the Bird-Wilkins Game 7 anniversary?
"You can't play here and not know about that game," said Pierce.
Contrast Pierce's post-game agony with James'.
"I feel really good," said James, who looked like he was ready to go dancing dressed in his shiny blue jeans, silk shirt, silk sports jacket and sun glasses. "For it being the middle of May, I feel great."
It was Pierce, though, who went above and beyond yesterday. While he is the Celtics' go-to guy when they are offensively challenged, which has been more the rule than the exception in the playoffs, he was the only option for almost the entire game.
"Our offense? It was get Paul Pierce the ball and get the hell out of the way," said Kevin Garnett, who scored 13 points and led all players with 13 rebounds. "It was amazing, man. It was amazing to watch."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Pierce's big game was just what the doctor ordered.
"We had to beat Cleveland when LeBron played a great game," said Rivers. "And we did that."
Thanks to Pierce.
Rivers was asked what makes Pierce so special at times, and he said he never could figure it out when he was on the opposing bench.
"It's not like he's super fast," said Rivers. "He's obviously a very good shooter, but he was hard to figure out. I couldn't understand how he scored so much."
Then when he came to Boston, Rivers saw something extra special in Pierce's game.
"His feet," said Rivers. "His footwork is as good as there is in this league. He's amazing on his feet."
"Second to Kobe Bryant, he has some of the best footwook I've ever seen in a player," said James, who used to have a long-running feud with Pierce, which now apparently is over. "Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players. I love the way he plays the game."
Rivers said some of Pierce's best work had nothing to do with his 41 points and 13-of-23 shooting.
"He is willing to make the extra pass," said the fourth-year Celtics coach. "That's the difference between him now and when I first got here. He took a lot of shots (yesterday) but he didn't force them up. If a shot wasn't there, he didn't take it."
He also showed his savvy when, with a minute left in the game, he cut in front of James and stole the tap, which had easily been controlled by Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Pierce said that he came to the Garden yesterday with the intention of looking for his shot more, again with Rivers' instruction.
"He told me to look for my shot coming off screens," said Pierce, who added four rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Pierce also thinks he might have had the luck of the Irish with him — or really Red Auerbach — when he was at the foul line for what turned out to be the game-clinching points.
With the score 95-92 with 7.9 seconds remaining, his first free throw hit the back of the rim and went straight up in the air, almost above the backboard, and came down through the cylinder for a swish and four-point lead.
"I think that was Red Auerbach looking down and give the ball a little nudge," said Pierce, whose shot was reminiscent of Don Nelson's jumper which bounced high off the rim and in to clinch the 1969 title against the Lakers. "I just laughed."
Now he can rest, if only for a few hours today, before all sights turn toward the Pistons, who come to Boston for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow night.
Someday, though, Pierce will be able to tell his grandchildren he did the unthinkable. He tied LeBron James and couldn't be happier.
E-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com.
Game 7 Summary
Play of the game: Easy. P.J. Brown's 19-foot jump shot with 1:21 remaining to put the Celtics ahead, 91-88. That hoop, the longest made shot of Brown's brief tenure here, came after LeBron James' thunderous dunk to make it 89-88.
Did you know?: The Celtics never trailed in the game, which is remarkable considering it was a single-digit Celtics lead the entire second half.
Stat of the game: Only five players, combined, scored in double figures last night — Celts Paul Pierce (41), Kevin Garnett (13) and P.J. Brown (10); Cavs LeBron James (45) and Delonte West (15).
Stat of the game II: The Cavaliers had only 13 assists for the game, their fewest of the playoffs. In fact, they had more turnovers (14).
Rondo vs. West: This is going to be point guard matchup to watch over the next few years. Yesterday, was almost a draw. While Delonte West had more points (15 to 8), Rondo had more assists (8 to 5) and fewer turnovers (2 to 6).
Quote of the game: "The tough thing for me was watching LeBron put the team on his back and be a leader like he was doing tonight and we let it get away," said Cavs forward Ben Wallace, who scored only three points in 30 minutes of action.
Quote of the game II: "We need to improve for next year, just like the Celtics did this year," said James.