BOSTON Big moments have defined the Lakers-Celtics blood feud, and in their first get together in 21 years, a kid from Los Angeles gave Boston one to remember.
Paul Pierce, who used to sneak into Lakers games as a youngster, came bounding out of the tunnel from the locker room after leaving with an injured knee and led the Celtics to a tense 98-88 victory over Los Angeles on Thursday night in Game 1 of these tradition-soaked finals.
Pierce's dramatic return after being carried from the court and then wheeled down a hallway for treatment will be added to the annals of Celtics-Lakers lore, taking a spot alongside Magic Johnson's baby sky hook and Kevin McHale's clothesline of Kurt Rambis.
Kevin Garnett scored 24 points, Pierce finished with 22 11 after getting hurt and Ray Allen, the third member of Boston's Big Three, added 19 for the Celtics, who are chasing a 17th NBA championship. The trio was making its first finals appearance, and for a short time it appeared only two of them would finish their long-awaited debut.
In the third quarter, Pierce was deep in the lane when teammate Kendrick Perkins crashed into him from behind, crumpling Boston's No. 34 to the court. The 10-year veteran, who last summer thought his days with Boston might be nearing an end, had to be carried from the court in extreme pain and was taken to Boston's locker room in a wheelchair.
"When I came down I thought I felt a pop, I thought I tore it," Pierce said.
The sight of Pierce leaving drew gasps from some Celtics fans and coach Doc Rivers' heart sunk.
"I thought the worst," Rivers said. "When they carried him off, I just though it was the knee."
However, everyone's worries were soothed just moments later when Pierce returned to Boston's bench and checked back in with 5:04 remaining. As Pierce jogged onto the court with a black elastic wrap on his knee, Garnett clinched a fist and screamed, "Yes!"
Soon, more than 18,000 others were screaming as Pierce made two 3-pointers in just 22 seconds to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead.
"When I got in the back I could put some weight on it," Pierce said. "I knew I needed to be out there for my team."
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points, but the regular-season MVP was just 9-of-26 from the field as the league's top defensive team kept close tabs on him. Bryant had numerous shots rattle out and spent most of his 42 minutes in the game searching for a rhythm.
Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol had 15 points apiece and Lamar Odom added 14 for the Lakers, who had won the first two games of their previous three series this postseason. Los Angeles will try to even the series in Game 2 on Sunday night.
This is the 11th meeting in the finals between the Celtics and Lakers, and the first one since 1987 has been treated like the return of a lost friend by basketball fans aching for the days when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went sneaker to sneaker.
Game 1 lived up to the hype as both teams challenged every shot, sprawling for loose balls and intensely defending their baskets. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West and the rest of the greats who made the rivalry special would have been proud.
With their crowd breaking into the familiar "Beat L.A." chants from the outset, the Celtics led 77-73 after three quarters and quickly pushed their lead to eight in the fourth following a 3-pointer by James Posey. Fisher and Sasha Vujacic scored to get the Lakers within 86-82, but Pierce countered with a jumper and made two free throws to put Boston up 90-82.
The Lakers again got within six, but Garnett, who missed nine shots in a row, followed up a miss with a ferocious dunk to crown Boston's win.
Unable to find his shooting touch in the first half, Bryant decided to focus on his defense. After 16-year veteran Sam Cassell came off Boston's bench and scored six quick points at the start of the second quarter, Lakers coach Phil Jackson switched Bryant onto the 38-year-old with the aching back and one of the few Celtics who knows his way around the finals.
Although their superstar wasn't doing his usual thing, the Lakers stayed close, and when Pierce had to sit down after picking up his third foul with 5:14 left, Los Angeles went on a 14-6 run Gasol and Odom scored four points apiece to open a 51-46 halftime lead.
Surprisingly, it was Fisher, not Bryant, who led Los Angeles with 13 points and Gasol had 12.
Despite their collective lack of finals experience, the Celtics didn't display any nervousness early. Strangely, it was Bryant who appeared to have some jitters, starting 1-for-7 from the field and not getting any clean looks at the basket.
Allen's 3-pointer from the right wing gave the Celtics a 19-14 lead, but the Lakers got a basket from Jordan Farmar, a 3 by Vujacic and Bryan't second bucket to pull within 23-21 after one quarter.
As the clock ticked down toward tipoff, Celtics fans, some who weren't even alive the last time the NBA's two marquee franchises clashed, scooped up T-shirts and bought other finals souvenirs marking the fierce rivalry's rebirth.
On a section of Union Street, adjacent to historic Faneuil Hall and not far from statues of patriot Sameul Adams and hoops patriarch Red Auerbach, Bostonians young and old warmed up their voices with chants of "Let's Go Celtics" and lubricated their throats before walking en masse toward the new "Gah-den," which had never hosted an event of this magnitude.
Notes: Jackson isn't a fan of the 9 p.m. tipoff. "I don't enjoy it at all," he said. "I think it takes guys out of their rhythm and out of their lifestyle. I know (the NBA) is trying to reach both audiences on the coasts, but there's another way to do that." ... Fueled by five players from outside the U.S. on the Lakers' roster, the series has drawn a record 280 international media members from 35 countries and territories. The finals are being televised to 205 countries. When the teams met in the 1987 finals, the games were televised to 28 countries. ... This is the Lakers' 29th finals appearance with the first six coming when the franchise was in Minneapolis. ... Among the celebrities in attendance were actor Bruce Willis and New England Patriots stars Randy Moss and Tedy Bruschi.