BOSTON | In the days leading up to the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics were asked repeatedly whether their lack of championship experience would hurt their chances against the Los Angeles Lakers, who are coached by the nine-ringed Phil Jackson and led by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, who have three rings apiece.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he and his players couldn't worry about that shortcoming because it was impossible to do anything about it. Rivers did pass on a simple piece of advice on how to handle the pressure of playing in their first Finals.
"Play. Just play," Rivers said before the game. "It's been my message to all of them all week. It's basketball. It's no different than the last game you played in Detroit. It's basketball."
And the Celtics heeded, pulling off a 98-88 victory in Game 1 of their 11th NBA Finals with the Lakers on Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden. After a back-and-forth game, which featured seven lead changes and five ties in the first three quarters, the Celtics reeled off a 17-7 run that began with 2:28 left in the third and lasted until 8:42 remained in the fourth to secure the victory.
Kevin Garnett " making the first finals appearance of his career " led the Celtics with 24 points and 13 rebounds. And Paul Pierce came back from a strained meniscus in the third quarter to finish with 22 points. Ray Allen finished with 19 points to round out Boston's "Big Three."
Kobe Bryant scored 24 points on 9-for-26 shooting to lead the Lakers in the losing effort.
After blowing a 65-62 third-quarter lead and falling behind 69-68, Boston tied the game with a foul shot from point guard Rajon Rondo. Then Pierce went to work. Minutes after being carried off the court and then returning, Pierce drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to give his team the lead and spark the decisive run that led to an 86-78 advantage.
While Boston went on its scoring spree, Los Angeles slipped into a scoring drought that lasted 3 minutes, 57 seconds.
"It was the tale of two halves tonight," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We had some control in the first half, played the kind of game we wanted to play. ... It was quite a flurry that they came out and played that third quarter with. Put us back on our heels. They finished the game strong and they rebounded the ball better than we did tonight. We'll have to do a better job there."
The Lakers cut the lead to four points before the Celtics strung together another spurt.
Garnett applied the exclamation point with 1:25 left in the game. Forward James Posey missed a 3-pointer, but Garnett took off from inside the paint, caught the errant ball in mid-air and threw down a two-handed monster jam that extended the lead to 94-86.
The Celtics showed no signs of nerves early on, taking a 23-21 lead after one quarter.
Garnett fueled his team early on with eight points and four rebounds in the opening period.
The Celtics remained in front " their largest lead 40-35 " before the Lakers went on a 10-2 run that was capped with a dunk in transition from Pau Gasol " who scored 12 points in the first half " and a layup from Lamar Odom and gave Los Angeles a 45-42 lead with 3:10 left in the first half.
Rondo hit a pull-up jumper to cut the lead to 49-46, but Fisher " who led the Lakers with 13 first-half points " answered on the opposite end with a 19-footer that gave the Lakers the 51-46 lead that they carried into halftime.
The Celtics quickly erased the deficit when Pierce hit a jumper on his team's first possession of the second half and then came back down the court to drill a 3-pointer while drawing a foul. Pierce converted on the four-point play to give Boston a 52-51 edge.
But with 6:49 left in the third quarter, Boston received a scare when Pierce left the game with a sprained knee. Pierce collided with center Kendrick Perkins under the Lakers' basket and then tumbled to the baseline clutching his right knee. Pierce had to be carried off the court and rode to the locker room in a wheelchair.
"I heard a pop in my knee and felt all this pain and grabbed it," Pierce said. "I thought I tore something. I thought that was it. But once we got in the back, felt on it, stood on my two feet, felt some pain on the inside but did some lateral moves. Once I felt like I could put weight on it I had to get back out there and help my ballclub. In the finals, that's what it's all about."
But a minute and a half later, Pierce emerged from the tunnel leading from the locker room wearing a Spandex brace on his right knee and took the court to deafening cheers.
"When he came back, he played his best," Garnett said. "He rejuvenated us to the point where he gave everybody life."
The Celtics took a 68-64 lead, but once again, couldn't maintain it and the Lakers went up 69-68 when Bryant received an alley-oop pass from Fisher and threw down a reverse dunk with just under three minutes left in the third quarter.
Bryant came back down the court with a fade-away jumper that extended the lead to three points.
But Pierce made his back-to-back 3-pointers to put Boston back up 77-71 with 1:04 left in the quarter. Bryant closed out the third quarter with a pair of free throws, trimming the Celtics' lead to four.