LOS ANGELES - Several events ignited the Celtics' stunning second-half rally in a 97-91 win over the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
An 11-0 run over a 2-minute-1-second span late in the first half gave the Celtics momentum. And a 23-5 run late in the third quarter and early in the final quarter tied the score.
But the origins of the comeback might go back even further, to a May 25, 2002, playoff game, when the Celtics overcame a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the New Jersey Nets, 94-90.
"For me, it was deja vu all over again, watching the game [Thursday] night," said former Celtics guard Kenny Anderson, who is in Los Angeles for a promotional event. "Paul Pierce was the only guy who played in both games, and I knew he was sitting in the huddle saying all the things we said.
"He had been in that situation before and he pretty much knew what could be done."
The Celtics entered Game 3 of the '02 Eastern Conference finals tied with the Nets. And the Nets led by 26 points in the second half, but were outscored, 41-16, in the final quarter.
The Garden crowd had been booing in the third quarter, but ended up cheering on the Celtics in a chaotic final quarter. At the time, the Celtics said they were motivated by an inspirational speech from Antoine Walker.
"[Walker said] no matter what happens in this fourth quarter, win or lose, we're just going to go down fighting," Pierce said after that game. "We're not going to get embarrassed tonight."
Pierce had been in a shooting slump, connecting on 5 of 34 shots in the series, then scored 19 points in the final quarter.
"Antoine was so positive in timeouts," former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien said. "He was saying to Paul, 'You just take over this damn game. You just start carrying us. Attack, attack, attack.' "
A Rodney Rogers foul shot with 3:55 remaining started the Celtics' decisive 13-2 run, Pierce's free throws giving the Celtics a 91-90 lead with 46 seconds to go. Then Anderson broke in for a layup off a Kerry Kittles turnover to make it 93-90. Walker hit a free throw to complete the scoring.
Before Pierce's free throws, the Celtics had led for a total of 13 seconds, on Eric Williams's foul shot in the opening minute of play.
After the game, Celtic players embraced Pierce near center court, and when Pierce broke free, he jumped on the scorer's table and gestured to the crowd.
O'Brien, normally undemonstrative, got caught up in the moment, pumping his fist toward the fans as he went to the locker room.
The Nets won the next three games, eliminating the Celtics, but nobody has been able to match O'Brien's imagery in describing the Celtics' rally.
"It was purgatory, it might have been closer to hell for three quarters, but that last one was Eden," O'Brien said after the game. "Damn, that was great."
But now the stakes are even greater, with the Celtics on the verge of winning an NBA title for the first time since 1986.
"When we made the comeback, we just wanted to get back in the game and make the score respectable for the next game," Anderson recalled. "But when we started coming back, [the Nets] got tight, the same as LA.
"And the LA players are not playoff-ready. Derek Fisher and Kobe [Bryant] are, but most of them are not playoff-ready. It's easy to shoot when you are up 20 points, but LA's players have never been in a situation like this. And when Boston got back within 5, I said the Celtics are going to win.
"The momentum switched and I knew it, because I had been a part of something like that. It's something that stays with you the rest of your life, with my kids, with coaching. I hit the layup to seal it and I had that picture, with Kerry Kittles trailing me, blown up and it's on the wall of my office. I see it every day and it reminds me, I know anything is possible.
"When the Celtics are champions, they will look back to this comeback and always remember that's why they won it."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.