Paul Pierce was thrilled when the Boston Celtics picked up a couple of All-Stars so he wouldn't have to carry the team anymore.
Turns out he did it anyway.
And Danny Ainge, the mastermind of offseason deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that turned a terrible team into a title contender, gushed after Sunday's 97-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers sent the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
"I was cheering," Boston's general manager said after watching Pierce score 41 points in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. "I wanted it so bad for the guys on the team. We were fighting hard. We didn't play our best basketball, but we got the win."
They got it despite LeBron James outscoring Pierce 45-41 in a shootout reminiscent of one 20 years earlier between Larry Bird and Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins in another seventh game of the conference semifinals. They combined for 81 points, 36 in the fourth quarter, of Boston's 118-116 win.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was the Hawks' point guard in that game and had 18 assists.
"I was on the right team this time," he said.
Now he must go against the Detroit Pistons, who are in the conference finals for the sixth straight season. The first two games are Tuesday and Thursday nights in Boston, where the Celtics are 8-0 in the playoffs. They're 0-6 on the road after winning the first two series in the full seven games. "Having gone through these two (series) has to have helped us a little bit," Rivers said. "It will be a good series."
Garnett had 13 points and 13 rebounds Sunday, but Allen's shooting woes continued. He made just one of six shots, scored four points and ended the series with 9.3 points per game on 32.8 percent shooting.
The Celtics didn't need him, not with the way Pierce took charge from the beginning, scoring nine of their first 16 points.
In his first nine seasons since being drafted, Pierce's Boston teams won just three playoff series. He was determined to keep this season alive.
"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.
"I don't think I really forced too much. Maybe I had a couple of rushed shots. But I just thought it was just my aggressiveness that led to open shots."
Pierce hit 13 of 23 shots and James went 14-for-29. Pierce also made 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.
At one point in the second half, they spoke on the court.
James recalled his remarks: "The fans came to see Paul Pierce and LeBron James play. Which guy is going to lead his team to victory? They came to see us play, so let's give the fans something to remember."
Ainge called the shootout "an epic battle."
Said James: "This will go down in history."
The game came down to the final minute despite the raucous fans cheering for the Celtics. One shouted a message to James &
"Not today, LeBron."
The Celtics have won 14 straight games at home. Their NBA best 66-16 regular-season record gives them homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
"Before the year our goal was to be there in Game — at home (in the conference finals) and that's where we are," Rivers said. "So we're exactly where we should be."
Home teams are 22-2 in the second round of this season's playoffs. The Celtics last loss came Friday night in Cleveland, 74-69.
On Sunday, they never trailed but never were safe until the final seconds.
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.
"I have always been a winner, and I am a winner," James said. "You are just disappointed that the season is over."
Cleveland coach Mike Brown said one key to the game was Boston's 10 offensive rebounds that turned into 18 points. Cleveland had just seven second-chance points.
"That was similar to what we had in the last game," Brown said. "You play on the road, if you turn the ball over, which we did a little tonight, and give up second chance points, it is going to be tough to win."
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.
"We expected this type of effort out of ourselves, competing until there's no zeros on the clock," said Delonte West, who had 15 points. "It just hurts that we just go home now. That's all."
The Celtics are unbeaten in the 29 series they've led 3-2.
Now they have just one day to practice for Detroit, whose 59-23 record was the league's second best.
"It is going to be very grueling. The Pistons are a great veteran team," said P.J. Brown, who had 10 points off the bench capped by a 20-foot jumper that made the score 91-88 with 1:21 left.
For a short time, though, the Celtics could enjoy the shooting display put on by a player who proved he could still carry his team if he has to.
"Today it was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way," Garnett said.
Pierce scores 41 to lead Celtics to Eastern Conference finals