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Paul Pierce was already a Celtics legend, but one game cemented his legacy

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Game 7, in 2008, Pierce went from a Celtics superstar to a player who would never be forgotten.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics, Game 7

Paul Pierce’s number 34 will be retired by the Boston Celtics on Sunday. SB Nation NBA writer Paul Flannery looks back at his most important game.

Game 7, 2008. Celtics and Cavs from TD Garden. It was the most important game of Paul Pierce’s career.

THE STAKES

The Celtics had cruised through the regular season with a 66-16 record and a lot of people figured they could have made a run at 70 wins. The battle-tested Pistons loomed in the conference finals, but few believed they’d have much problem getting to that point.

Then the playoffs began. The C’s somehow went seven inexplicable games with the 37-win Hawks in the first round and they couldn’t seem to win on the road. They had traded body blows with the Cavaliers through the first six games of their semifinal series with each team prevailing on their home floor.

The Cavs were the defending Eastern Conference champs, but this was an almost entirely different team than the one that had made a surprising Finals run the year before. A deadline deal shuffled LeBron James’ supporting cast, but they played uninspired ball down the stretch, going 18-16 after the trade.

LeBron was just 23 years old in 2008, and a year away from embarking on his MVP prime. Bron was obviously headed for greatness, but this was the Celtics’ time. Or so it seemed heading into the matchup.

Pierce was seven years older and coming off the most significant season of his 10-year career. The Truth had posted far better statistical campaigns, but this was the first time he was playing with two other All-Stars in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics, Game 7

Many wondered how Pierce would handle the transition, but he blended seamlessly with his contemporaries. He scored when he needed to score, passed when he needed to pass, and defended at a high level throughout the season.

But things didn’t seem right during the playoffs. They couldn’t put the Hawks away when they had the chance, which revealed their postseason inexperience. The Cavs series was far different. The Celtics simply couldn’t score against the rugged Cavs’ defense and Pierce was getting worked by LeBron.

Coming into Game 7, Pierce was averaging just 16 points a game and shooting 36 percent from the floor. If the Celtics were going to survive this test, their captain would have to come up big.

THE GAME

Pierce started quickly, scoring nine of their first 14 points as the C’s opened up a slim first-quarter lead. He continued to attack in the second and the Celtics looked like they were finally in control, building a 10-point lead by halftime.

But LeBron kept coming. In the third quarter, the two traded buckets and assists, locked in a duel that would rival Larry Bird’s famous showdown with Dominique Wilkins. This was no mere Game 7. This was becoming historic.

With the season on the line, Pierce went to work from his sweet spot — the foul line extended. How many times had he worked his man to that spot and then hit him with a step-back jumper? Utilizing pump fakes, spin dribbles and jab steps, Pierce made seven of his 10 field goal attempts from his favorite area of the court.

LeBron wasn’t fazed. They were the primary options in nearly offensive set and all the action flowed through their respective hands. With two and a half minutes left, Pierce made a crucial mistake and lost his dribble near the midcourt line. James swooped in for the steal and finished with a dunk to bring the Cavs within a point, 89-88.

The final 140 seconds were attrition. The only made baskets down the stretch came from P.J. Brown for Boston and Sasha Pavlovic for Cleveland. Pierce stepped to the free throw line with seven seconds left and a chance to secure the win.

His first attempt looked short, but it found a forgiving part of the rim and with Pierce and the Garden crowd willing the ball back on course, it dropped through the net. The building erupted and Pierce let out a huge smile of relief. “It was the ghost of Red,” Pierce joked later.

Pierce finished with 41 points on 12-of-23 shooting. LeBron countered with 45 of his own. Even in defeat, LeBron grasped the significance of the moment perfectly.

“We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again,” James said. “I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did. This will go down in history.”

For Pierce, Celtics history was a shadow he could never fully escape until that moment. He had the numbers and the All-Star appearances, but to be one with the Garden greats required postseason validation. He was aware, very aware, that while his career had a number of outstanding moments, this Game 7 was for his place in franchise lore.

“I finally got my own,” he said, more relieved than jubilant.

THE LEGACY

Something about that Cavs series extended belief throughout the whole Celtics team. When they finally dropped a game at the Garden against the Pistons in the conference finals, they responded with a road win of their own. With a chance to close out Detroit on its home floor, Pierce sparked a comeback with a four-point play.

The Finals against the Lakers were almost a formality. The C’s still couldn’t avoid messing around with big leads, but they made up for it with an overwhelming performance in the Game 6 clincher. Pierce, who had nearly been traded out of town a few years previously, was named the Finals MVP.

He was a made man in Boston now.

The fact that they were never able to win another championship was unfortunate. Those Celtics remain the only title team in franchise history to win just once during their run. In their failures, however, they became human.

Pierce and the Celtics became the thing that wouldn’t die. As the years progressed and the Celtics continued on their quixotic quest to bring home another championship, Pierce became something else. He became family.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics, Game 7 Photo by Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There was a guy who used to sit behind the media seats at the Garden who kept up a steady lament of, “Come on, Pierce” during games. It was the kind of thing you’d say to your exasperating cousin even though you loved him and knew he’d do right in the end.

Pierce could be cranky and moody at times, blunt and to the point at others. He was a Masshole, but a charming one. At least locally he was perceived as charming, which was the only thing that really mattered. When he signed with the Wizards late in his career and was invited to throw out the first pitch at a National game, he opted for his old Celtics warm up to the surprise of no one.

Pierce ranks third in Celtics history in games played and second in points behind only John Havlicek. He’s in the top 10 in rebounds, assists, and ranks first in steals and 3-pointers.

He’s arguably one of the five best players in franchise history, but that’s an argument no one would be willing to have if he hadn’t brought home the title in 2008. Game 7 against LeBron and the Cavs was his signature moment, the point at which Pierce became truly accepted as one of the all-time greats.

In later years when Pierce would visit wearing the strange colors of visiting teams, the in-arena camera would pan up to an empty patch of fabric in the rafters where his No. 34 would one day live forever. It goes up there today along with Red and Russell and Havlicek and Bird.

Paul Pierce is finally home for good.