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.