Pierce's shining moment comes in duel for the ages

BOSTON -- "This will go down in history."

The man saying those words had a look of pride, not shame, etched on his face. His eyes were looking upward, glowing really, rather than downward in disgust.

LeBron James didn't seem peeved, but rather proud to have been a part of such an epic, entertaining Game 7. He gave credit where credit was due, and on this late afternoon, when the clock seemed to turn back 20 years, James was the man speaking most earnestly when it came to heaping well-deserved praise on the opponent who had pulled off a rarity, going mano a mano against him and coming out ahead.

That man was Paul Pierce, who until Sunday was defined by what he hadn't done.

No more.

"He was well overdue for a breakout game, he played really well -- and that's why he's going to the next round and we're not," James said.

This was an afternoon that they'll be talking about through the summer here in Beantown, regardless of what the Celtics do in the next round against the Pistons, regardless of whether they make it to the Finals, regardless of whether they win or lose in the championship round.

The ghost of Red [Auerbach] was looking over us. I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction, and it went through the net. That's just kind of the way it was going."

-- Paul Pierce, on a favorable free-throw bounce

It was a day when the two best individual talents remaining in the Eastern Conference locked horns in classic fashion, Pierce's 41 points coming up larger in the end than James' 45 as the Boston Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-92 Sunday in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

"Now they have something to remember in Boston other than what Dominique [Wilkins] and Larry [Bird] did. They'll remember what Paul and LeBron did," James said, referencing the shootout that took place two decades earlier -- a game that Boston coach Doc Rivers was a part of, playing point guard for the Hawks in a 118-116 loss that still haunts him to this day.

"I'm very aware of the game," Pierce said. "They don't ever let you forget it when you look up to the JumboTron."

This was a coming-out game that Pierce had been waiting an entire career to experience, a performance when Pierce made himself worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence with James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as one of the game's elite and clutch players.

Pierce did his damage from all over the court and throughout all four quarters, becoming a one-man offensive show on a day when Kevin Garnett deferred to the hotter teammate and Ray Allen disappeared again and was kept on the bench by Rivers for all but 1:39 of the fourth quarter, when this one could have gone either way.

One such teeter-totter moment came with exactly one minute remaining on the game clock, the Celtics clinging to a 91-88 lead that P.J. Brown gave them by knocking down a 17-footer with 1:21 left. (Brown was 4-for-4 with six rebounds, including 3-of-3 with five boards in the fourth quarter, in an effort that showed how important it was for Pierce to have attended the players' party at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. It was at that party at the Convention Center where he and Garnett pulled Brown aside in the early morning hours and told him how much he'd be needed in Boston sometime around mid-May.)

The Cavs came down and missed, but the rebound was tied up between Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James Posey, and a jump ball was called.

The moment seemed endless as referee Bennett Salvatore waited and waited for both players to get set and hold still, and when he finally tossed it up, it was no surprise when Ilgauskas steered the ball toward James.

The surprise came when Pierce stepped in front of James and got to the ball first.

"That's something I tried to do all season, stealing tips. I went in there headfirst and was able to come up with it," Pierce said.

After Garnett missed a jumper, James drove the left side of the lane and tried to draw contact at the basket from Brown, who stood ramrod straight with his hands high above his head and defended the play perfectly, forcing James into an off-balance attempt that never had a chance -- while also not giving the refs an excuse to blow their whistles for a bailout call.

Two free throws by Allen made it a five-point game with 18.8 seconds left, although Sasha Pavlovic got it down to three on a jumper with 8.6 seconds left.

Pierce was fouled seven-tenths of a second later and went to the line with a chance to ice the game, his knees seeming to knock as he raised his right arm and released the first free throw.

Off the back rim it bounced, and straight up it went.

The entire arena held its breath as the ball began to come down, and the place erupted when it went through the net.

"The ghost of Red [Auerbach] was looking over us," Pierce said. "I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction, and it went through the net. That's just kind of the way it was going."

The game's most important stat: Boston grabbed nine offensive rebounds and converted them all, scoring 18 second-chance points.

James made a beeline for the locker room as the final buzzer sounded, while Pierce stayed behind to soak up the adulation. The two had gone at each other frantically all afternoon, taking time during a couple of timeouts to challenge each other, smiles on each of their faces.

"We were like: 'Who's going to give in?'" Pierce said.

"We were both trying to will our teams, and just like Dominique, I ended up on the short end," James said. "The fans came to see Paul Pierce and LeBron James play, and which guy was going to lead his team to victory, and I said, 'Let's give the fans something to remember.'"

That's what they got, and the Celtics fans got the added treat of a date in the next round with the Detroit Pistons, the winner advancing to the NBA Finals.

That matchup figures to be even tougher for the Celtics than this one was, and there's going to come a time when their 14-game body of work over the course of the first two rounds -- eight victories, all at home, and six losses, all on the road -- will leave their legs tired and their minds fried.

Still, Rivers said, it could be to the Celtics' advantage.

"We haven't been in the playoffs together, ever, and now we've won two Game 7s and two Game 5s. I'd rather have done it differently, but this has to help our team. So there's a negative side to the fatigue, but there's a positive side, too, having been through this," Rivers said.

The Eastern Conference finals will begin Tuesday night in Boston, and James will not be turning away.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

"I'm a fan of the game, and you might even see me at a few games," James said. "Detroit takes a lot of pride on the road -- even more than they do at home. It's going to be a good series, and I'm looking forward to watching it."

Spoken like a man who took no shame in being one-upped by someone who, at least on this day, was able to carry his team to victory.

Despite the loss, James seemed genuinely thrilled to have been a part of this contest. This was Pierce's day, and James seemed to appreciate being a part of it as much as anyone else.

In a way, both of them grew up Sunday. Sort of seems too bad that only one of them could win.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.