BOSTON - Banner No. 17 is halfway to the rafters. The Celtics are two wins from another NBA championship.
And maybe a little lucky to be there.
Paul Pierce, darting around the parquet floor with ease, scored 28 points, Boston's defense mobbed Kobe Bryant long enough, and unknown Leon Powe scored 21 points as the Celtics held off a remarkable Los Angeles rally for a 108-102 win over the Lakers last night. The Celtics have a two-games-to-none lead in these trip-down-memory-lane NBA Finals.
The Celtics had to work every second to get the win.
The Lakers trailed by 24 with less than eight minutes to go, but pulled to 104-102 on two free throws by Bryant with 38.4 seconds left. But Pierce made two free throws, then blocked a jumper by Sasha Vujacic, and James Posey sank two free throws with 12.6 seconds left to ice it for Boston.
"I think we got kind of complacent with the lead," Pierce said. "We weren't staying aggressive. We let them pick up their pressure. We stopped guarding. We've got to take a lesson from this fourth quarter to keep playing, regardless of the score, and finish the game."
Boston was 27 for 38 from the line; the Lakers were 10 for 10.
Pierce wasn't slowed by a sprained right knee suffered in the series opener, when he was carried from the court and plopped into a wheelchair. The team captain paced the Celtics, who are back in the Finals for the first time since 1987, when Larry Bird was the main man and gasoline cost 91 cents per gallon.
As usual, Boston's Big Three - Pierce, Ray Allen (17 points) and Kevin Garnett (17) - were the ringleaders, but Powe, a second-year reserve, had the game of his career, adding his 21 points in 15 minutes that may make him a Celtics fan-favorite for life.
Powe, who played a total of 68 seconds during one stretch of 13 games during the season, scored six points to close a 15-2 run ending the third quarter that gave the Celtics a 22-point lead. At one point in the fourth quarter, Boston fans discarded the familiar chants of "Beat L.A.!" for cries of "Le-on Powe!"
Rajon Rondo had 16 assists and Garnett added 14 rebounds for the Celtics, who are back in the Finals for the first time since 1987.
Game 3 is tomorrow night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are 8-0 in the postseason and have won 14 in a row at home since March 28. Bryant had better hope the rims there are a little kinder than the ones at TD Banknorth Garden.
"We knew we had to get this win. This was a big win going out West," Pierce said. "Our mind-set is to get Game 3 and try to take away their confidence and win this series in L.A. We knew it was going to be tough, but nobody said it was going to be easy."
Bryant, who pledged to bounce back from a subpar Game 1, scored 30 points - 13 in the fourth - on 11-of-23 shooting. In four losses to Boston this season, he is just 35 of 93 from the field and can't seem to get the same easy looks he enjoys against every other team.
Pau Gasol had 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who were down by 95-71 with 7 minutes, 55 seconds when they mounted a comeback that fell just short.