DURING CONFERENCE ELIMINATION games—you know, in which he scores 45 points one year after towing Cleveland all the way to the NBA Finals—LeBron James's total dominion over the East seems merely a matter of when, not if. So just call Paul Pierce's stand in Game 7 of the 2008 conference semifinals one of the great acts of resistance in NBA history. The Celtics' 30-year-old captain responded with 41 points of his own as Boston staved off the Cavs in a 97-92 thriller, one-upping the 1988 playoffs shootout in which Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird combined for 81 points in Boston Garden. "These fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about [that scoring battle] and remember what Paul and LeBron did," James said afterward. "This will go down in history."
A look at the more recent past might have taken the suspense out of the duel (which ended, just as it did 20 years earlier, with Boston advancing to face Detroit). The top-seeded Celtics had dutifully followed a strict, if unintentional, postseason formula of winning at home and losing on the road. Sticking with that formula in their second Game 7 of the playoffs, Boston kept it simple. "Today," Kevin Garnett said, "it was basically, Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way."
Replace " Paul Pierce" with " LeBron James" in that sentence, of course, and you get what appeared to be the Cavs' playbook. James emerged as the dominant player in this series, leading both teams in points (26.7 a game), assists (7.6), steals (2.1) and tied with Zydrunas Ilgauskas in blocks (1.3). The critical difference between the teams? While Cleveland swore by a single star, the Celtics could rely on three. "We work on trying to contain him," said Pierce, assigned to cover James for most of the series. "And if we can somehow control him, we control their team."
James accordingly proved his mortality in Game 1, a 76-72 Celtics victory, going a stark 2 for 18 from the field and missing four times—including blowing a layup—in the final minute. On the other end this time was Garnett, collecting 28 points and eight boards. In Game 2, an 89-73 Boston victory, Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen combined for 48 points, 19 rebounds and nine assists as James scored 21 points on scattershot 6-for-24 shooting.
In the next two games, however, James slipped the leash, to the tune of 42 points, 21 assists, 11 rebounds, seven steals and five blocks, all of it punctuated by a cathartically vicious dunk over Garnett in the fourth quarter of Game 4. "I hadn't had a play like that all series," James said. "There was a lot built up." Even more palliative, he got help: Delonte West, Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak together put up 54 points in the Cavs' 108-84 Game 3 drubbing of the Celtics, and Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varej�o then accounted for 40 points in an 88-77 win in Game 4.
But in Boston, Pierce would regain control. In Game 5 he scored 29 points to James's 35 but on defense held James to only one basket over a 20-minute span, as the Celtics rallied to hold what was ultimately a 96-89 lead. Then, in Game 6 in Cleveland, the Cavs bounced back behind a 32-12-6 night from their leading man, setting up that spectacular Game 7 shootout. "It was either win or go home," James said after Game 6. "I'm not ready to go home." The Celtics, conversely, couldn't wait.