BOSTON Paul Pierce returned home and made sure the Celtics would play there again.
Boston's captain scored 41 points and still lost a shootout with LeBron James with 45 but led the team with the NBA's best regular season record to a 97-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The conference finals begin Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons in the same arena where the Celtics have won 14 straight games and are 8-0 in the postseason.
"Before the year our goal was to be there in Game 1 at home and that's where we are," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "So we're exactly where we should be."
Home teams are 22-2 in the second round of this season's playoffs. But the Celtics are 0-6 on the road in the postseason after Friday night's 74-69 loss in Cleveland. On Sunday, they never trailed but they never were safe until the final seconds.
Pierce hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left for the final points, then James missed a 3-pointer on the last shot of the game with 4.4 seconds to go.
"I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn't let up," Pierce said. "Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose."
Sasha Pavlovic's 3-pointer made it 95-92 with 8.6 seconds left, and the Cavaliers immediately fouled Pierce. His first shot hit the rim, hung in the air, then fell through as the crowd roared. Pierce said team patriarch Red Auerbach, who died in October 2006 at age 89, had something to do with that.
"The ghost of Red just looking over us," Pierce said. "I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction. It sort of put a smile on my face."
Pierce's second free throw was much smoother, making it 97-92.
Cleveland raced downcourt, and James hoisted a 3-pointer that missed with 4.4 seconds to go. The Cavaliers got the rebound, and James waved for the ball from the same spot he had just missed from.
But Boston's Eddie House intercepted the pass and, as the final seconds ticked off, James turned and walked toward his bench, his chances of reaching the East finals dashed on the court where the Cavaliers were 0-6 this season.
"Boston did their work during the regular season to put themselves in this position" to play Game 7 at home," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said.
Still, the Celtics were pushed to the limit for the second straight series. They did dominate Atlanta in Game 7, winning 99-65, but had a much tougher time eliminating Cleveland.
But now they're unbeaten in the 29 series in which they've led 3-2.
"Today it was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way," Kevin Garnett said.
Garnett added 13 points, and P.J. Brown came off Boston's bench to score 10 and grab key rebounds.
Delonte West was the only other Cleveland scorer in double figures with 15.
The Celtics led 50-40 at halftime, but the Cavaliers cut that to 52-49. It was 61-58 before Boston stretched its margin to 67-58 by scoring the next six points.
But Cleveland kept coming back and trailed by just 73-68 going into the fourth quarter.
The Celtics got a scare when Pierce was fouled by Pavlovic on a drive to the basket and fell on a video cameraman under Boston's basket with 23 seconds left in the first half. Pierce got up slowly and, after a 20-second timeout, made two free throws.
He stayed in the game for all but the last 4.2 seconds of the half, then left for treatment of a bruised left thigh but played most of the second half.
Many fans in the full house were clad in green shirts. Lucky the Mascot held up a sign reading "ROCK THE GARDEN!" and the crowd roared. Pierce got the loudest ovation when he was introduced with his nickname, "The Truth."
And when the game started, one fan bellowed, "Not today, LeBron."
With smoke from pregame pyrotechnics still rising toward the rafters where Boston's 16 championship banners hang, the Celtics got off to a strong start. They rolled to a 16-4 lead with Pierce scoring nine but the Cavaliers closed it to 29-23 with 7:20 left in the second quarter.
That's when James left the game for the first time, replaced by Pavlovic, and the Celtics got the next five points before James returned less than 1 1/2 minutes later.