BOSTON - Big moments have defined the Lakers-Celtics blood feud, and in their first get-together in 21 years, a kid from Los Angeles gave Boston one to remember.

Paul Pierce, who used to sneak into Lakers games as a youngster, came bounding out of the tunnel from the locker room after leaving with an injured knee and led the Celtics to a tense, 98-88 victory over Los Angeles last night in Game 1 of these tradition-soaked NBA Finals.

Pierce's dramatic return after being carried from the court and then wheeled down a hallway for treatment will be added to the annals of Celtics-Lakers lore, taking a spot alongside Magic Johnson's baby sky hook and Kevin McHale's clothesline of Kurt Rambis.

Kevin Garnett scored 24 points, Pierce finished with 22 - 11 after getting hurt - and Ray Allen, the third member of Boston's Big Three, added 19 for the Celtics, who are chasing a 17th NBA championship. The trio was making its first Finals appearance, and for a short time it appeared only two of them would finish their long-awaited debut.

In the third quarter, Pierce was deep in the lane when teammate Kendrick Perkins crashed into him from behind, crumpling Boston's No. 34 to the court. The 10-year veteran, who last summer thought his days with Boston might be nearing an end, had to be carried from the court in extreme pain and was taken to Boston's locker room in a wheelchair.

"When I came down I thought I felt a pop, I thought I tore it," Pierce said.

The sight of Pierce leaving drew gasps from some Celtics fans, and coach Doc Rivers' heart sunk.

"I thought the worst," Rivers said. "When they carried him off, I just though it was the knee."

However, everyone's worries were soothed just moments later when Pierce returned to Boston's bench and checked back in with 5:04 remaining in the third quarter. As Pierce jogged onto the court with a black elastic wrap on his knee, Garnett clinched a fist and screamed, "Yes!"

Soon, more than 18,000 others were screaming as Pierce made two three-pointers in just 22 seconds to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead.

"I could put some weight on it," Pierce said. "I knew I needed to be out there for my team."

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points, but the regular-season MVP was just 9-for-26 from the field as the league's top defensive team kept close tabs on him. Bryant had numerous shots rattle out and spent most of his 42 minutes in the game searching for a rhythm.

Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol had 15 points apiece and Lamar Odom added 14 for the Lakers, who had won the first two games of their previous three series this postseason. Los Angeles will try to even the series in Game 2 on Sunday night.

This is the 11th meeting in the Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, the first one since 1987.

Game 1 lived up to the hype as both teams challenged every shot, sprawling for loose balls and intensely defending their baskets. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West and the rest of the greats who made the rivalry special would have been proud.

With their crowd breaking into the familiar "Beat LA" chants from the outset, the Celtics led 77-73 after three quarters and quickly pushed their lead to eight in the fourth following a three-pointer by James Posey. Fisher and Sasha Vujacic scored to get the Lakers within 86-82, but Pierce countered with a jumper and made two free throws to put Boston up 90-82.

The Lakers again got within six, but Garnett, who missed nine shots in a row, followed up a miss with a ferocious dunk to crown Boston's win.

The Celtics outrebounded the Lakers, 46-33.

"They did a much better job on the boards," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That's the difference in the ballgame."

Jackson said he isn't a fan of the 9 p.m. tipoff that will be in effect throughout the series.

"I don't enjoy it at all," he said. "I think it takes guys out of their rhythm and out of their lifestyle. I know [the NBA] is trying to reach both audiences on the coasts, but there's another way to do that." *