for this game

Celtics outlast Cavaliers, advance to conference finals

May 19, 2008 - 1:20 AM BOSTON (Ticker) -- The Boston Celtics needed every bit of their storied history to turn back LeBron James.

Paul Pierce scored 41 points and the Celtics held off the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-92, on Sunday in a pulsating Game Seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Top-seeded Boston had to overcome a magnificent 45-point performance by James to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the well-rested Detroit Pistons.

"It's just one of those games where 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 tonight. Just to be a part of something like this and be on the winning side of it is a great feeling, man."

Despite failing to win on the road thus far in the playoffs, the 16-time NBA champion Celtics protected home court by going 8-0 in taking seven-game sets from the Cavaliers and eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.

The Celtics, who improved to 16-3 all-time in Game Sevens at home, are back in the conference finals for the first time since 2002. They will host second-seeded Detroit in Game One Tuesday night.

"Home court meant a lot in this round. They worked hard all year to get home-court advantage, winning (66) games," James said. "I don't think coach (Doc) Rivers or those guys would ever think that it would matter to them so much. But that is what they worked hard all season for, to get home court. Throughout two rounds, I know they wanted to play better, but they haven't had to win on the road yet."

Pierce, the longest-tenured player on the Celtics in his 10th season, and James engaged in a stirring duel as the Cavaliers failed to become the first team in history to rally from a 3-2 series deficit and beat Boston, which improved to 29-0 in such situations and denied Cleveland a return trip to the conference finals.

That did not happen in large part because of Pierce, who finished 13-of-23 from the floor and hit 4-of-6 3-pointers. Still, the Celtics were pushed to the limit because of the sensational exploits of Cleveland's resident superstar.

"Tonight was very simple, get the ball to Paul Pierce, get the (heck) out the way," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. "That's exactly what it was, no need for you all to ask me no questions, that was the game plan, that is what we did."

James, who scored 112 points in the final three games of the series, sandwiched 3-pointers around a basket by Pierce to pull Cleveland within 83-80 with 5:42 to play.

Despite the intense pressure and high stakes, both Pierce and James were aware of their own mini-battle, which evoked memories of a historical scoring duel between Boston's legendary Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks 20 years ago.

"I think I kind of sensed (the duel) one time in the second half when he came and shot the three right over me and I went back and shot the two right back," Pierce said. "I thought: One of us HAS to give!"

"We both are trying to will our team to victory, and just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end," James said. "The Celtics won again."

The Cavaliers, who never led in the game, got within 89-88 on a steal and dunk by James with 2:20 remaining - the last points they would score for over two minutes.

Just when it appeared the Celtics would wilt under a torrent of points by James, the Celtics got rescued by the unlikeliest player on the roster.

P.J. Brown, who was in retirement before Boston signed him after the trade deadline, buried an 18-footer with 1:21 to play, then forced an airball by James with 25 seconds left.

"When I signed, I thought I could contribute ... more defensively and rebounding, that is what my career has been built on, that is my bread and butter," the 38-year-old Brown said. "As far as the shot goes, I wasn't brought here for that. I was definitely not brought here to shoot last-second shots."

Brown finished with 10 points - all in the second half - and grabbed six boards in 20 minutes for Boston.

"P.J. Brown, to play those minutes and to play that many minutes straight, we might not see him for the next couple days but that was fantastic," Rivers said.

Ray Allen, who had a dreadful game with just four points, then hit the first two of six consecutive free throws to keep Cleveland at bay and keep the Celtics' remarkable turnaround season alive.

"You get so close, you know?" said Cavaliers forward Wally Szczerbiak, an ex-Celtic. "You got to use this feeling to motivate you for next year. We have a team that can win it and we knew that. We came up a little short but give the Celtics credit. They had the home court and are moving on."

Kevin Garnett had 13 points and 13 rebounds while Rajon Rondo had eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists for Boston.

Following a 24-win season a year ago, the Celtics posted the league's best regular-season record at 66-16. The 42-game improvement marked the largest in NBA history.

"I'm sure Kevin (Garnett) and Paul (Pierce) have said it, but before the year we thought we would be in the Eastern Conference championship," Rivers said. "And before the year our goal was to be there at home, in Game One, and that's where we are so we are exactly where we should be."

Guard Delonte West, an ex-Celtic, was the only other Cleveland player in double figures with 15 points.

"You got to give credit to (the Celtics)," West said. "They've been playing well at home all year, and they had guys step up and hit big shots."