BOSTON—Next week, when the NBA Finals move to Los Angeles, stars and starlets will line the courtside firmament at the Staples Center. There was no shortage of stars on hand at the TD BankNorth Garden last night, but Boston fans worship a different constellation. The Lakers have Jack; the Celtics have John Henry, the diminutive owner of the Red Sox. The Lakers have Denzel, Leo, and Tobey; the Celtics have the Patriots—a whole lot of them. Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork, and Randy Moss were all present and accounted for last night, and all eventually showed up on the JumboTron. Moss, wearing a hat pulled low over his eyes and a hoody pulled over his hat, didn't realize the camera had found him until the elderly gentleman seated beside him politely tapped the wideout on the shoulder and nodded up to the big screen; Moss acknowledged the crowd with a Cheshire grin, then gamely gave gramps a pound.
Each time the JumboTron operator located another local sports figure in our midst, a roar went up from the crowd. Given the historic nature of this series—you may have heard that this isn't the first time the two teams have vied for the NBA's golden vase—I found it somewhat irritating to have my attention distracted from the task at hand, namely rooting for a basketball team that hasn't been to the finals in 21 years. But while Boston has spent the last week steeping in Celtic-Laker history—algebra teachers used Nellie's fateful jumper to inspire interest in parabolas; older siblings visited ruthless re-enactments of McHale-Rambis on their unwitting kin—last night the Garden fans seemed preoccupied with something else: The city's world-historical run of sports dominance. The Red Sox are atop the AL East and are the defending World Series champions. But for the meddling David Tyree, the 2007 Patriots might have been 19-0 instead of 18-1 and captured their fourth Super Bowl in the Belichick era. Walking down Causeway Street after the Celtics' win tonight, I passed a red-faced fan in a Ray Allen jersey offering up a hearty cheer of "Let's Go, Bruins."
Boston has gone from being a city of worrywarts to a town full of crazy optimists. Fans at the Garden last night were there to do their part in the acquisition of that 17th banner, but they were also there to have some fun, a concept foreign to any Sox fan who suffered through the playoff runs of '03 and '04. A group of two men and two women sitting behind me spent the second quarter devising a strategy for sneaking from the loge section into the tonier club level. (Their plan—create a diversion and then bum-rush the stairs when the usher wasn't looking—struck me as far-fetched, but their seats were empty for the second half, suggesting mission accomplished or, I suppose, ejection and prosecution.) The guy in front of me, meanwhile, spent the game snapping digital photos of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen—when he wasn't testing out his zoom lens by composing tightly framed shots of Celtic Dancer badonkadonk.
This is not to say that this evening's display of basketball went unappreciated. The Celtics have been dominant at home throughout the playoffs, and while Boston didn't open a commanding lead until the waning moments of the game, they played with a poise that belied their lack of finals experience, defeating the Lakers soundly, 98-88. Each member of the Big Three made a contribution, but the night belonged to long-suffering captain Paul Pierce, the man known to fans simply as The Truth. After a middling offensive performance in the first half, Pierce came out gunning to start the second, scoring eight straight points—half of them on a preposterous four-point play. But just as it seemed like Pierce was going to take over the game, he and teammate Kendrick Perkins got tangled up defending against a driving Kobe Bryant, and Pierce went down hard. The Celtics called a timeout. Pierce was still down. Minutes passed—you could duck out for a tour of Plimouth Plantation during these bloated playoff timeouts—and Pierce still hadn't budged. Eventually, his teammates carried him awkwardly off the floor. He was wheeled into the locker room in a wheelchair.
Seeing Pierce leave the game hobbled was enough to visit upon some in the crowd an ashen look typically associated with Red Sox fandom circa 1918-2004. It couldn't possibly be that Pierce, a loyal Celtic through the thick and very, very thin of 10 seasons, had just left his first-ever finals game with a series-ending injury—could it? With no announcement forthcoming over the PA, the crowd was encouraged to fear the worst. Yet not two minutes after being carried, then wheeled, off the court, Pierce reappeared, strut-limping down the locker-room runway toward the floor. He proceeded not to the bench but right up to Coach Doc Rivers; had the coach not grabbed his captain's shirt, Pierce may have kept walking right onto the court, dispensing with the formality of being checked into the game by the referees.
Back on the floor, Pierce picked up where he'd left off. It may not come through in the box score, but the game felt as if it slipped away from the Lakers late in the third, when Pierce, still favoring his knee, hit a three, then, after a thrilling block by Celtic elder statesman P.J. Brown, came back and hit another three from almost exactly the same spot. The crowd was in a frenzy, Pierce had donned the defiant, almost petulant look he wears when he's at the top of his game, and that wheelchair was surely being spirited away to the same secure location where they keep Curt Schilling's bloodstained sock.
Pierce, who has already played the role of Larry Bird once these playoffs, has inevitably been compared to Larry Legend again after last night's performance, which recalled Bird's third-quarter return from a crushing head injury in Game 5 of Boston's 1991 series against the Indiana Pacers. Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, provided an off-Broadway caliber turn as Magic. Defended ably by Pierce, Allen, James Posey, and others, the MVP was held to a quiet 24.
Still, opening night of this latest Lakers-Celtics revival suggested that these two teams might actually live up to the expectations set by history and the NBA-hype machine. Kobe isn't likely to go down as quietly again, and the mind reels at the idea of a full-fledged shootout between Bryant and Pierce in a Game 7 back at the Garden. Even this spoiled-rotten sports town couldn't help but be dazzled. And to their credit, as excited as tonight's crowd was to see its other sports heroes show up, the biggest reaction the JumboTron got out of the fans came in the fourth quarter, when a highlight reel of Paul Pierce power moves was spliced together with the climactic court scene from A Few Good Men. "You can't handle the truth!" barks Jack, and the crowd goes wild.