With a chance to extend their NBA Finals series lead to two games over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics were clicking.
A first-quarter deficit had turned into a double-digit halftime lead and a 22-point advantage headed into the fourth quarter. The Celtics appeared poised to cruise to victory.
Cruise the Celtics didn't. The Lakers came storming back in the final quarter, pulling within a basket, but the Celtics escaped TD Banknorth Garden with a 108-102 victory to go up 2-0 as the series heads west for the next three games.
"Obviously like I told our guys, we're up 2-0, and I'm happy with the win," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I just wasn't very happy with the way we played. I thought we played terrific in the third quarter. We made a concerted effort to come out. I didn't like the way we started the game. The first quarter in my opinion was awful, and I thought the fourth quarter was awful. Thank God for the second and the third."
Down by two after the first quarter, the Celtics started the second with a 10-0, tide-changing run and never trailed again. Paul Pierce led Boston with 28 points, but backup forward/center Leon Powe, who notched a career playoff-high 21 points, led the surge for Boston.
The second-year pro, who saw his minutes increase with center Kendrick Perkins hobbled by a high ankle sprain, came in with the Celtics down 22-20 and scored five of Boston's points in the run, which put them up 30-20 and forced a Lakers timeout 2-1/2 minutes into the second quarter.
The Lakers eventually closed the margin to 41-37, but Boston responded by closing out the first half with a 13-5 run fueled by consecutive 3-pointers by Pierce and Ray Allen.
Pierce scored two more points from the foul line and followed that with a jumper. And point guard Rajon Rondo capped the run with four straight points including a breakaway dunk. The Celtics jogged back to the locker room up 54-42 and serenaded by thunderous chants of "Beat L.A., Beat L.A." from the green-clad home crowd.
The break did little to cool the Celtics or revive the Lakers.
Pierce, whose effectiveness was in question before the game because of a strained meniscus in his right knee, scored seven points and Allen and Powe added six apiece in a third quarter that saw Boston outscore Los Angeles 29-19 and take an 83-61 lead.
On offense, the Celtics executed with ease, dizzying the Lakers with crisp ball movement, racking up 10 assists on 11 third-quarter field goals and shooting 57.9 percent from the field. Boston established itself in the paint, outscoring its opponent 14-4 in the post.
But just when the Lakers appeared to be at their worst, they did a dramatic about-face thanks to a fiery pep talk from Kobe Bryant.
"[I said] get our beap 'A' in gear," said Bryant, who himself had been relatively quiet through three quarters with 17 points. "Play beep harder, a bunch of other beeps. It's beep, beep, beep, beep. 'Eddie Murphy Raw' times 10."
Backup point guard Jordan Farmar was the first to respond to the tongue-lashing, knocking down a 3-pointer 24 seconds into the fourth quarter. Fellow reserve Ronny Turiaf then scored on an assist from Bryant, who finished with 30 points. The Lakers went on to make four more 3-pointers and outscore the Celtics 42-21 to pull within 104-102 with 22 seconds left to play.
"We just learned about momentum," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We started turning the corner a little bit in the fourth quarter, but they'd come back, hit a 3, something would happen and I just kept saying we'll find a moment in this game to come back and play it. We just wanted this game to last long enough to carry it out. But it didn't."
Pierce went 2-for-2 at the foul line to protect the lead, and James Posey knocked down two foul shots of his own as Boston held on.
"We just weren't aggressive enough to put the game away," Pierce said. "I thought we wanted the time to just run out, and we were myself, I was a little lackadaisical with the ball. It's a great win but definitely a lesson to be learned in the last six minutes. Just down the stretch we've got to be more aggressive."
The Lakers will play host to the next three games, the first of which takes place Tuesday night at 9 p.m.