BOSTON - Sprawled near the edge of the famed parquet floor, Paul Pierce grabbed his throbbing right knee and wondered if his first NBA finals — the ones he had always dreamed of playing in — were finished.
“A lot was going though my head,” Pierce said. “’It can’t be over like this.”’
The Boston Celtics’ captain wouldn’t quit.
He came back out, carrying the franchise’s title hopes with him.
Pierce, who as a kid growing up in Los Angeles used to sneak into Lakers games, returned from a knee injury to inspire and lead Boston to an emotional and tense 98-88 victory on Thursday night in Game 1 of these tradition-soaked NBA 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 finals lore, taking a spot alongside Magic Johnson’s baby sky hook and Kevin McHale’s clothesline of Kurt Rambis.
Pierce’s comeback drew immediate comparisons to Willis Reed, the former New York Knicks great who once hobbled onto the court of Madison Square Garden before Game 7 of the 1970 finals against the Lakers. Some of the savvy Celtics fans chanted Reed’s name in tribute.
“I wasn’t trying to imitate him,” Pierce said. “I’m just glad I was able to get back out there.”
Kevin Garnett scored 24 points, Pierce finished with 22 — 11 after going down — 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.
With 6:49 left 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. “I couldn’t move.”
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!”
“Everybody was rejuvenated,” said Garnett, who had 13 rebounds. “It was good to see him.”
Soon, more than 18,000 others were screaming as Pierce made two 3-pointers in just 22 seconds, capping a 15-point quarter and giving the Celtics a 75-71 lead.
“When I got in the back I could put some weight on it,” said Pierce, who hobbled into his postgame news conference with his knees wrapped in ice. “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, attempting to win a fourth NBA title — and first without Shaquille O’Neal — had numerous shots rattle out and spent most of his 42 minutes in the game searching for a rhythm.
“I had some good looks, they just didn’t go down for me,” Bryant said. “I just missed some bunnies. I’ll be thinking about those a little bit.”
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 finals in Game 2 on Sunday night.
This is the 11th meeting in the finals between the Celtics and Lakers, and the first 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.