Paul Pierce scored 41 points as the Boston Celtics held off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-92 on Sunday to advance in the NBA playoffs.
The Celtics have yet to win a game on the road in the playoffs, but they remained perfect at home as they wrapped up the Eastern Conference second-round series in a do-or-die Game 7.
They will face the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals for a spot in the championship series.
Top-seeded Boston had to overcome a superb 45-point performance by “King” James, the fourth-most in a game seven in NBA history.
It was the second straight series that the 16-time NBA champion Celtics were taken to seven games. They were also stretched to the limit by the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the previous round.
Boston will host Detroit in game one of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday.
“We’ve played 14 hard games,” said Boston’s Kevin Garnett. “It’s more emotionally draining than anything. We will enjoy this, but we know as we advance it will get even more difficult.”
Pierce, the Celtics’ longest-tenured player in his 10th season with the club, dueled James, whose Cavaliers reached last year’s NBA Finals but were sept by San Antonio.
Pierce was largely responsible for preventing any Cavalier comeback.
He finished 13-of-23 from the floor and hit 4-of-6 3-pointers.
“Tonight was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way. That’s exactly what it was,” Garnett said.
Pierce said his stellar performance felt natural.
“I thought we just did things that were in the flow of the offense,” he said. “I don’t think I forced too much.
“It was my aggressiveness that led to the open shots I was able to take. I took a number of 15-footers that I know I can make right there off the dribble.
“The ball was coming to me. I felt great. I was just letting it ride.”
James, however, kept the Cavaliers in it until the bitter end, as he and Pierce put on a show that drew comparisons to the duel between Celtics icon Larry Bird and Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins in Boston’s game-seven home victory in the same round in 1988.
“Fans came to see Paul Pierce and Lebron James play — I told him that,” James said of his brief mid-game chat with Pierce. “I said they came to see us play, let’s give the fans something to remember.
“It was very exciting to be a part of this, especially in this building.
“As a fan of basketball, and I know so much about the history — this will go down in history.”
James, who scored 112 points in the final three games of the series, sandwiched 3-pointers around a basket by Pierce to pull Cleveland within 83-80 with 5:42 to play.
The Cavaliers, who never led, got within 89-88 on a steal and dunk by James with 2:20 left — but didn’t score again for more than two minutes.
While Pierce was the undisputed star, the Celtics had a key contribution from an unlikely source as P.J. Brown responded to Cleveland’s late surge.
Brown, who was in retirement before Boston signed him after the trade deadline, drained an 18-footer with 1:21 to play, then forced an airball by James with 25 seconds left.
“PJ has been what we thought he would be,” Garnett said. “He’s brought not only energy but veteran leadership. He’s been there, he’s very poised. I felt like his shot was very important, if not the biggest shot of the game.”