Paul Pierce hit a shot. Then LeBron James answered. Pierce hit another and so did James.

It was like that all game long yesterday, two of the NBA's best trying to carry their teams to the next round. Pierce and the Boston Celtics succeeded, beating the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-92.

Twenty years earlier, there was another thrilling shootout in another seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston - Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins.

And the result was the same: a narrow Celtics victory that sent them to the conference finals against Detroit.

Pierce scored 41 points, James had 45 and Boston remained unbeaten in the playoffs at home, where the first two games against the Pistons will be played tomorrow and Thursday night.

"It is a great feeling," Pierce said. "We knew this was going to be a tough, tough series."

In a seven-game series in which the road team never won, the Celtics had many green-clad fans on their side. Lucky the Mascot held up a sign reading "ROCK THE GARDEN!" and the crowd roared. Pierce got the loudest ovation when he was introduced with his nickname, "The Truth."

And when the game started, one fan bellowed, "Not today, LeBron."

It wasn't Wilkins' day on May 22, 1988, even though he outscored Bird in Boston's 118-116 win over Atlanta at the old Boston Garden. Wilkins finished with 47 points, 16 in the fourth quarter, and Bird had 34, with 20 in the final period.

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

James has seen plenty of highlights of that mano-a-mano tussle.

"We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again," he said. "I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did.

"This will go down in history."

Pierce hit 13 of 23 shots and James went 14-for-29.

Celtics executive vice president Danny Ainge, who played in that 1988 game, called yesterday's shootout "an epic battle."

The Celtics have won 14 straight games at home and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They are 0-6 in the postseason on the road.

"Before the year our goal was to be there in Game 1 at home [in the conference finals] and that's where we are," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "So we're exactly where we should be."

Home teams are 22-2 in the second round of this season's playoffs. The Celtics never trailed Sunday but they never were safe until the final seconds.

Pierce hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left for the final points, then James missed a three-pointer on the last shot of the game with 4.4 seconds to go.

"I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn't let up," Pierce said. "Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose."

Said Celtics teammate Kevin Garnett: "Today it was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way."

Garnett added 13 points and P.J. Brown came off Boston's bench to score 10 and grab key rebounds.

"It's emotional," Garnett said. "We will enjoy this, but as we advance it does get a little more difficult."

Delonte West was the only other Cleveland scorer in double figures with 15.


* More than 4 months after Andrew Bynum injured his left knee, it's been decided the Los Angeles Lakers center will undergo arthroscopic surgery. Dr. David Altchek will perform the procedure in New York on Wednesday, the same day the Lakers host San Antonio or New Orleans to begin the Western Conference final.

"I just hope for the best for him," teammate Luke Walton said. "He was a huge part of our success early on and he's going to be a huge part of our future." *