BOSTON - Before yesterday's clash against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the TD Banknorth Garden, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers stood outside his team's locker room. As the Celtics prepared for their second Game 7 of the 2008 playoffs, Rivers was asked about the attendant pressure.

"Some people feel it and some don't," Rivers said. Then he paused, before adding: "You'll know who is who when you watch the game."

It was clear from the opening tip that Celtics captain Paul Pierce was one of the few players who was not weighed down by the Game 7 gravity. Pierce turned in one of his best postseason performances, scoring 41 points to lead Boston to a 97-92 victory.

The win puts the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2002. Boston will play Game 1 at home against Detroit tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.

The game plan "was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way," said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett with a laugh. "And that's what we did. He's the man of the hour."

Pierce, who went 13 for 23 from the floor and 4 for 6 from beyond the arc, hit several crucial shots against the Cavs. The biggest of all, though, were the pair of free throws he made to seal the win with 7.9 seconds left in the game.

Most of the matchup felt less like a collision of two determined teams and more like a game of one-on-one between Pierce and LeBron James. Although the play was physical on both sides, James was the only person to match Pierce's offensive effort. James had a game-high 45 points on 14-for-29 shooting.

It was Pierce, though, who got to enjoy the win.

"Just to be a part of something like this, it's a great feeling," said Pierce, who complemented his stellar scoring with four rebounds and five assists. "We knew this was going to be a tough, tough series. We knew they wouldn't be an easy knockout. This was like two heavyweights going at it."

The Celtics are now 16-3 all-time in Game 7s. But if not for Pierce getting hot at the perfect time, the game easily could have swung the other way. Garnett and Ray Allen, the other two-thirds of Boston's "Big Three," were content to stand and watch Pierce at times.

Garnett scored 13 points, making just 5 of his 13 shots. Meanwhile, Allen went a woeful 1 for 6 from the floor to finish with four points. Forward P.J. Brown was the only other Celtic to score in double digits. He had 10 points.

James' teammates were equally underproductive. St. Joseph's product Delonte West, who had 15 points, was the sole Cavalier besides James who scored more than eight points.

"It's tough to lose at any point in the playoffs, but especially when you know your season is done," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown.

"We dug a hole for ourselves early, but we fought to get back into the game. And we gave ourselves a chance to win down the stretch."

The Cavs cut into Boston's 10-point halftime advantage by going on a 9-2 run to start the third quarter, trimming the Celtics' lead to 52-49. With less than three minutes left in the game, James stole the ball from Pierce at half-court, then threw down a thunderous dunk to get Cleveland within one point of the Celtics, 89-88. That was as close as Cleveland got to the lead, however.

The only other time the two teams played against each other in a Game 7 was in Boston back in 1992. The Cavaliers, who were led that season by Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance, won that contest. Sixteen years later, the Celtics finally got their revenge.

"It was a hell of a win," Rivers said. "Before the year started, we thought we'd be in the Eastern Conference championship. And that's where we are."