By Rob Peterson
Posted Oct 29 2008 12:27PM
BOSTON -- They received their rings. They raised their 17th banner. But while the Celtics as a whole were celebrated and the spirit of Ubuntu filled the air at TD Banknorth Garden on Tuesday, the night belonged to one player: Paul Pierce.
"It's always about the team," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "but the one guy who's been here through thick and thin.
"I just thought it was important for him to have a moment."
Celtics fans here last saw Pierce deliver an MVP performance and help their beloved basketball team to the franchise's first title in 22 seasons. On Tuesday, he picked up where he left off 132 days ago as Pierce led Boston with 27 points in a 90-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"He's got a confidence now," Rivers said. "Cleveland's one of the teams that's given him problems the last couple years. Going through last year's playoff series got his confidence going and that's huge for us against them, because that other guy's a monster."
That other guy, Cleveland's LeBron James, scored 22 points, grabbed seven boards and handed out six dimes.
But it was Pierce -- and the Celtics' second-half D -- that gave the Cavs fits. Whether it was shaking-and-baking his way past James for an open 17-footer in the third quarter or a half-court assist to Leon Powe with 5.3 seconds in the fourth to seal the deal, Pierce made the most of his 38 minutes on the floor. When Powe, Pierce's neighbor in the Celtics' locker room, made the late layup, The Finals MVP broke out in a wide grin.
The game was sealed, the night complete.
While Pierce's night ended with a smile, it began with tears of joy streaming down his face. The Celtics captain, who has had his ups-and-downs as a Celtic, couldn't contain the emotions that came flowing out of him as he took the Larry O'Brien trophy from Celtics legend John Havlicek.
"It brought back so many memories from when I was a kid," Pierce said. "Being able to have my family and closest friends there was just a great night to be able to share that with them. Not only the fans and the organization, but those are the people that really matter to me most.
"They saw it from day one, when I first picked up a basketball, they've supported me. It's moments like these that you always cherish, whenever you can raise that banner and grab that ring."
The Celtics, however, were left with an emotional hangover from the ceremony. They shot a measly .405 from the field and if no one knew any better, it seemed worse than that. Still, Rivers thought his squad had weathered the storm.
"We were terrible in the first half," Rivers said. "We were missing wide open shots, running right by guys. We couldn't have done much worse, yet we were only down by seven."
That halftime respite served as a reality check. After the break, the Celtics championship-level defense made its presence felt. Boston held Cleveland to 35 second-half points as the Cavs shot .388 from the field in the final 24 minutes. Cavs coach Mike Brown, who noted earlier in the day that his team was trying to play quicker, played a little too fast and loose with the rock.
"One of our Achilles' heels has been our turnovers," Brown said. "We're trying to play a little faster, but sometimes that translates into miscues. The Celtics defensive pressure and physical [play] in the second half caused us to have 12 turnovers.
"That's too many to have in a half."
Still, the Cavs had some tantalizing moments in the second half that showed what this team can do in the open floor when opportunities present themselves, and new point guard Mo Williams was a part of both of them.
Midway through the fourth, Anderson Varejao pilfered a pass and the ball found its way into Williams' hands. Williams then drove the lane and found Varejao for the easy layup. Five minutes later, Williams stole the ball, broke down the floor and as he came within five feet of the hoop, threw the ball in the air and James swooped in like a hawk for the dunk.
Those moments were few and far between for Cleveland. The Celtics' familiarity with each other on defense and the Cavs' unfamiliarity on offense proved to be a combo deadly to Cleveland's chances to getting an opening night win in the champs' house.
"Our mindset is defense first, offense second," Kevin Garnett said. "The second half was better once we settled in. When teams come in here, they've got to know we're prepared. The defense will be up to par and it will be a great effort.
"That's what we hang our hats on every night."
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