BOSTON -- Paul Pierce made a shot. Then LeBron James answered. Pierce made another and so did James.
It was like that all game, the two trying to carry their teams to the next round. Pierce and the Boston Celtics succeeded, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-92, Sunday.
Twenty years earlier there was another thrilling shootout in another seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston -- Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins.
And the result was the same: a narrow Celtics victory that sent them to the conference finals against Detroit.
Pierce scored 41 points, James had 45 and Boston remained unbeaten in the playoffs at home, where the first two games against the Pistons will be played Tuesday and Thursday night.
"It is a great feeling," Pierce said of a series in which the road team never won. "We knew this was going to be a tough, tough series."
Pierce made 13 of 23 shots and James went 14 for 29.
"Before the year our goal was to be there in Game 1 at home [in the conference finals] and that's where we are," said Boston Coach Doc Rivers, whose team needed seven games to beat Atlanta in the first round. "So we're exactly where we should be."
The Celtics never trailed Sunday but they never were safe until the final seconds.
Pierce made two free throws with 7.9 seconds left for the final points, then James missed a three-point attempt on the last shot of the game.
"I had it going, LeBron had it going and we just didn't let up," Pierce said. "Neither one of us wanted our teams to lose."
Sasha Pavlovic's three-point shot made it 95-92 with 8.6 seconds left and the Cavaliers immediately fouled Pierce. His first shot hit the rim, hung in the air, then fell through. Pierce said team patriarch Red Auerbach, who died in 2006, had something to do with that.
"The ghost of Red just looking over us," Pierce said. "I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction. It sort of put a smile on my face."
Pierce's second free throw was much smoother, completing the scoring.
"Today it was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce and get out of the way," said Kevin Garnett, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Celtics.
P.J. Brown was valuable off Boston's bench, scoring 10 points.
Delonte West was the only other Cleveland scorer in double figures with 15. Starters Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas combined for 11 points.
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Eastern Conference finals
NO. 1 BOSTON vs. NO. 2 DETROIT
Season series: Boston, 2-1.
Buzz: A lot has happened since the Celtics finished seven games ahead of the Pistons.
The big number in the East Finals is seven -- the number of days the Pistons will have been off by Tuesday's opener while the Cavaliers dragged the Celtics through Games 5, 6 and 7.
This cuts both ways but the Pistons will happily accept the bargain.
It they're rustier, they're also rested. At their age, with Chauncey Billups back after missing the last two games against Orlando because of a hamstring pull, rest means more than rust.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the Pistons are like the Cavaliers, with one less superstar but a lot more good players, not to mention more size and depth. Detroit has trouble scoring, too, but the Pistons are rock-ribbed defenders who are tough to score on.
The big question is, what do the Celtics have left after two seven-game series? Paul Pierce emerged from his slump with his 41-point Game 7 Sunday but Ray Allen's point totals in the series were 0-16-10-15-11-9-4.
The Celtics have home-court advantage and the Pistons have to get back up to speed but if Detroit breaks through in one of the first two in Boston, look out.
-- Mark Heisler
Tuesday: at Boston, 5:30 p.m.
Thursday: at Boston, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday: at Detroit, 5:30 p.m.
May 26: at Detroit, 5:30 p.m.
May 28: at Boston, 5:30 p.m.*
May 30: at Detroit, 5:30 p.m.*
June 1: at Boston, 5:30 p.m.*
All times Pacific; * if necessary