BOSTON – Just like that, those familiar chants of "Beat L.A.," dormant for more than two decades, were silenced once again.
As Paul Pierce laid in pain near the edge of the famed parquet floor, clutching his injured right knee and weeping, a new cry — "Let's go Paul" — filled the air before Boston's captain was carried from the floor by his teammates and whisked to the locker room in a wheelchair.
Game over. Series over. Any chance for a 17th championship banner — over.
"I thought that was it," Pierce said.
And then, Pierce returned, yet another dramatic comeback in a turnaround season for the Celtics.
Pierce shook off a sprained knee and scored 22 points — 11 after getting hurt in the third quarter — to lead Boston to a 98-88 victory on Thursday night over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of a tradition-rich and super-hyped NBA finals that already has a signature moment.
Pierce's return immediately joins 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. It 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 even 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 and Ray Allen, the third member of Boston's Big Three, added 19. The trio, brought together by two transforming trades 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, couldn't put any weight on his leg and needed assistance to get to the locker room.
"I thought I tore something; that's the way I felt at the time," Pierce said. "Usually when I go down, I'm getting right back up, but it was an instance where I turned my knee and it popped, and I was just in pain where I couldn't move."
The sight of Pierce leaving in the arms of teammates Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen 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 thought 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!"
"He was walking, he was up on his own strength and he rejuvenated us," said Garnett, who had 13 rebounds and overcame a 3-of-13 shooting performance in the second half. "He gave everybody life."
Soon, more than 18,000 others were screaming as Pierce made two 3-pointers from the same spot 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 limped into his postgame news conference with his knees wrapped in ice. "I knew I needed to be out there for my team."
Pierce was told by team doctor Brian McKeon that he has a strained knee, and wouldn't speculate on whether he'll miss any time.
"We'll see how it feels tomorrow and the next day and go from there," Pierce said.
At one point, Pierce wasn't sure if he would be able to get back out on the court.
"I think God sent an angel down and said, 'Hey you're going to be all right. You need to get back out there'," Pierce said.
He didn't say if that angel was smoking a cigar, but the Lakers must be wondering if the late legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach had anything to do with Pierce's seemingly miraculous recovery.
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," a resolute 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 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.
Sparked by Pierce's return, 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 to 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.