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Cavaliers break Celtics

Boston falls in 2 OTs despite 50 from Pierce

Paul Pierce drives past Zydrunas Ilgauskas for two of his 50 points against Cleveland.
Paul Pierce drives past Zydrunas Ilgauskas for two of his 50 points against Cleveland. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

Paul Pierce outplayed superstar LeBron James last night in the most memorable game of the Celtics' disappointing and dispiriting season. It was a grand duel between two of the league's top offensive threats, an instant classic that had the crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden standing throughout much of the fourth quarter and for both overtime periods.

But even with a career-high 50 points from Pierce, including a pair of tying free throws with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation, the Celtics could not defeat James (43 points) and the Cavaliers, especially once the Celtics' captain fouled out near the end of the second overtime. With just enough free throws in the closing minute and a layup from James, Cleveland earned a 113-109 win in double overtime.

Boston was denied its first three-game winning streak of the season and entered the break with the type of loss that has typified the season: No matter how hard Pierce tries, how spectacularly he plays, how many impossible shots he hits, he cannot carry Boston to victory.

Delonte West called it a preview of the All-Star game, though both Pierce and James will play for the Eastern Conference. After some careful consideration, Raef LaFrentz called it the best, most complete game of Pierce's career. And LaFrentz, who also teamed with Pierce at the University of Kansas, is as good a judge as anyone. It reminded Doc Rivers of another duel he had the privilege to witness, the one between the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird May 22, 1988. It was the most points scored by a Celtic since Bird scored 50 against the Hawks Nov. 10, 1989.

In his best NBA season, with his best NBA game in the books, Pierce knows there's a good chance he will watch the playoffs from home. So Pierce relishes games like the one last night.

''Whenever you get two All-Stars on the court at the same time, you've always got a sense of pride," said Pierce, who hit 17 of 36 from the floor and 16 of 20 from the line.

''We both have the utmost respect for one another and I think our competitive juices come out [when we play each other]. What can I say? It was a great night for both of us."

LaFrentz deemed last night's performance the best of Pierce's career for the way the captain played at both ends. Pierce was almost as impressive on the defensive end as he was on the offensive end as he tried to contain James. James finished with his fourth triple-double this season (12 rebounds, 11 assists). Pierce fouled out guarding James with one minute left in overtime.

''In my opinion, when you've got two All-Stars guarding each other, you've got to let some things go," said Pierce. ''I don't think my aggressive defense warranted a foul."

The officials were obviously not sympathetic to that point of view. Even as Pierce went to the bench, the Celtics remained optimistic. But they had no chance without him. Wally Szczerbiak missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that represented the Celtics' last, best chance to tie the game again.

The Cavaliers took the early lead in the first overtime, 99-95, but the Celtics caught a pair of breaks when Zydrunas Ilgauskas fouled out and James injured his left knee when he collided with teammate Eric Snow. The injury came with Snow guarding Szczerbiak as the Boston forward attempted a 15-footer. Snow fell backward trying to unsuccessfully stop the shot. He hit the back of his head on James's left knee.

James appeared to be in serious pain, but stayed in the game and hit a pair of free throws to stretch the Cleveland lead to 101-97. A 22-footer from Szczerbiak followed by a free throw from Drew Gooden kept Cleveland ahead by 3, 102-99. But Pierce did what he had done during the fourth quarter. He drove to the basket, made the layup and hit the free throw for a 3-point play that tied the game, 102-102, with 24.8 seconds remaining in overtime. On the other end, James missed what would have been a winning layup and the game went to double overtime.

''It definitely was a winnable game for us," said West (15 points, career high 10 rebounds). ''This one was a tough one to swallow."

After taking the lead for the first time in the third quarter on a 21-footer from West, Pierce kept Boston in the game in the fourth, making big plays every time the Celtics needed one. And most of all making his foul shots.

Knowing his recent history of missing clutch free throws, when Pierce stepped to the line at the end of the fourth, it was a nervewracking moment. He calmly hit both.

''I've blown some free throws earlier in the year with seconds to go, but I just didn't think about it," said Pierce. ''I just wanted to get us into overtime. It was all I could do."

Nothing could stop Pierce last night. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the Celtics.

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