BOSTON -- Paul Pierce feared the worst when he heard a "pop" in his right knee in the first game of the NBA Finals.
Then he got back to the locker room, tested his legs, and realized his first real chance at a championship wasn't over yet.
"I thought that was it," Pierce said Thursday night after scoring 22 points to help the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers 98-88 in Game 1 of the finals. "You know, I think God just sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right. You need to get back out there. Show them what you've got.' "
Pierce went to the court with 6:49 left in the third quarter when teammate Kendrick Perkins' leg knocked Pierce's out from under him. Pierce stayed on the court for several minutes as the game went into a timeout, with the fans yelling, "Let's go Paul!" before realizing things might be serious when he had to be carried off.
Celtics reserves Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen helped team doctor Brian McKeon lift Pierce and bring him to the tunnel, where he was put in a wheelchair and taken back to the training room. McKeon helped Pierce calm down so they could assess the damage.
"Athletes in that situation always think the worst," said McKeon, who would not comment on the specifics of Pierce's injury. "He doesn't know. He's a player, not a doctor."
McKeon said an athlete's natural reaction is to fear the worst and try to minimize more damage. So he didn't draw any conclusions about the injury until he got Pierce in the training room.
"An injury is an emotional time for any athlete. There's so much adrenaline involved," McKeon said. "So you have to get them in an isolated situation. You have to calm things down."
Once Pierce was able to get back up on his feet, he located the pain and tried to move from side to side. When he put his weight on it, he knew he could at least give it a try.
McKeon told him it was time to play.
Pierce said: "Let's do it."
"I had to get back out there to help my ballclub," Pierce said. "That was all that was going through my mind, just being a part of it. I just wanted to get back out there."
Pierce came bounding out of the tunnel and back onto the court, bringing the crowd to its feet. Wearing a sleeve on his right leg, he walked right past the bench to the scorer's table to check in with 5:04 left in the third quarter.
"A guy grabs his knee, you know, there's no good thoughts," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Honestly I thought the worst. When they carried Paul off -- I've had the injury, I've seen it -- I just assumed it was the knee."
But his return encouraged his teammates, too.
"You just heard the roar of the crowd," Kevin Garnett said. "He was walking, he was up on his own strength, and he rejuvenated us, I think to the point where he gave everybody life."
Pierce was back in the game for four minutes when he hit consecutive 3-pointers 20 seconds apart, giving the Celtics a 72-71 lead and then extending the spread to four points. After heading back to the bench with four fouls, he rode a stationary bicycle in the entryway to stay loose while cheering on his teammates.
"What helped them out were those two 3s that he hit, not coming back on the floor," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think that was the big momentum change in the game."
Pierce scored 15 points in the third quarter and 22 in all -- 11 before leaving the game -- on 7-for-10 shooting. He also had four rebounds and two assists.
"Everyone who knows Paul Pierce knows he steps up big in big games," Scalabrine said. "So nothing would surprise me at this point. Some guys in this world, their blood pumps differently than other guys. That's just the way it is.
"Some guys, their hearts are bigger. Paul is one of those guys."