BOSTON – After all those games under all those banners, Paul Pierce had heard every last bit of Boston Celtics' greatness. He'd seen every Bill Russell highlight, taken in every John Havlicek story and listened to every Larry Bird lesson. He understood why the standard of greatness for this franchise is so unforgiving.
You either hang one of those championships from the rafters here or it's like you never existed; no matter how many points, no matter how many All-Star games, no matter how many excuses.
A Celtics legend is expected to deliver in Game 7s such as Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They're expected to rise up and leave the LeBron Jameses of the world – no matter how strong the drives or sweet the jumpers – in a heap of futility.
"Just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end," James said.
Yes, 20 years ago this same act played out here on a spring afternoon in Boston. An unstoppable offensive force from Atlanta pushed the Celtics to a Game 7. Wilkins' 47 points would have stolen the series if not for Larry Legend dropping 20 in the fourth quarter.
Everyone here watched Pierce and James go mano-a-mano, trade fallaway threes and acrobatic slashes to the rim until James had poured in 45 points to Pierce's 41, and they thought of Bird and Wilkins.
That's the Celtics. You can't ever lead them to a new level of greatness. You can only equal what's already been done. You're always looking back while pushing forward.
It's the blessing and the burden and Paul Pierce understood it all until he was waving a towel and pumping his fists at the wild celebration of a 97-92 victory to propel the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
"The Celtics won again," James shrugged
Again, a Celtics' legend was born.
"Paul's been one of the best handful of players in Celtics history and I think today is one of those games that solidifies that legacy," said general manager and former Celtics guard Danny Ainge. "He hasn't had a whole bunch of opportunities to play in this magnitude of a game.
"That's the legacies great players build."
Pierce had waited 10 seasons for an afternoon like this, an opportunity like this. He had seen the team through small progress and then monumental failure, loss after loss, a dynasty disgraced. It wasn't him; he's long been their best player. Not that it mattered.
Not here. Not in green.
No matter Pierce's individual genius and no matter Ainge's testimony he would never be considered one of the best handful of players without proving it in the lonely moments of the most desperate games, none of which seemed possible of happening in Boston just a year ago.
Last spring, after the lottery went bust for Boston, Pierce demanded to be traded. Ainge refused and pulled off a couple of deals to bring Kevin Garnett and others to town. The moribund Celtics turned into the best team in the league, 66 victories strong.
None of that, of course, means a thing here without a banner. And there couldn't be one of those if Pierce let James further his own legend with an otherworldly performance to steal a series out of the vaunted Garden. There could be no living down the Celtics crumbling as a heavy favorite to a one-man team.
Pierce knew the stakes when he struggled to sleep Saturday night. He knew it when he came to the Garden four hours early for some extra jump shots. And he certainly knew that when James came out hitting threes, then amped up his intensity in the second half. Someone was going to have to stop this guy.
Larry would have done it. Russell would have done it.
This time it would be Pierce's time to do it. With every LeBron three, here he came. With every LeBron scoop to the hole, there he went. They even guarded each other for much of the game, a high-stakes playoff duel being played out in front of the din of a delirious crowd.
Pierce even dropped home the Celtics' final two free throws, including one on a miracle bounce that he credited to "the ghost of Red just looking over us."
"I wish he was here today to be with us," he said.
If Red Auerbach was there then he saw Pierce dive for a loose ball in the final minute, a jump ball gone free, there for the taking by whoever wanted it.
James went for the ball only to be blocked by a sprawled out Pierce, who got two hands clenched around it before calling time out. It gave Boston a possession advantage they used to cruise home.
As the Garden erupted at the play, worth no points, but, still, a victory, Pierce turned onto his back, and shouted toward the rafters with joy. Had he noticed, here on his greatest day as a Celtic, he was laying directly below one of those vaunted banners.
It was 1986, the last of the Celtics' 16 championships. Next to it is where the next one will go. Next to it is where Paul Pierce so desperately wants to hang his own banner, his own legacy, his own place in this franchise's incomparable history.