During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA has broadcast classic games nightly on their YouTube channel. On Memorial Day, Boston Celtics fans were given a moment to rejoice. Eighteen years ago on Monday, the C’s turned around the single-greatest comeback game in NBA playoff history in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. Knotted up 1-1 with the then New Jersey Nets, the green took the parquet floor at the Fleet Center to do battle.
This Celtics team was fairly new to the grand stage. Paul Pierce was in his third professional season. Antoine Walker, the team’s other stalwart and an All-Star, was in his fifth. This core, surrounded by nomad role players and a veteran point guard in Kenny Anderson, led Boston to 49 wins only a year after firing Rick Pitino. Their quick ascent to the Eastern Conference Finals was unexpected.
So was the rise of their adversaries from New Jersey. The Nets went 26-56 the season prior, before general manager Rod Thorn made a blockbuster deal for point guard Jason Kidd. Kidd, along with first-time head coach Byron Scott, was flanked by a young, upstart team. Kenyon Martin was blossoming as a two-way force and guys like Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles were just hitting their prime.
Boston stole Game 2 in New Jersey to even the series before suffering an abysmal start to Game 3. The Nets led by 15 at the end of the first quarter, suffocating Boston with their pressuring defense. Richard Jefferson and Martin used their fantastic athleticism to quiet Pierce and Walker. Pierce was 0-5 in the opening frame, routinely dealing with double teams. Walker had three turnovers. Only one other Celtic, defensive wing Eric Williams, hit a field goal in the opening frame.
While their offense got rolling in the earlier part of the second frame, that trapping, swarming defense of the Nets dominantly closed out the half. Pierce couldn’t get an ounce of breathing room. He was 1-10 in the first half and faced traps on every back-to-the-basket touch he received. New Jersey would use their quickness to anticipate passing lanes and shoot off to the races for easy transition buckets:
Three Celtics turnovers in the final three minutes of the frame allowed New Jersey to end the half on a 14-2 run. Two jump shots from cagey veteran Lucious Harris and two fast break layups from Kittles extended the Nets halftime lead to 20. Boos rang throughout the Fleet Center and Jim O’Brien’s team went to the locker room with their heads down.
A sloppy and chippy third quarter ensued. The Celtics were clearly frustrated, but several technicals and small skirmishes kept the crowd energized. Rodney Rogers, an important backup stretch big for the team, picked up the first T. A later standoff between Kidd and Pierce raised some eyebrows as the intensity picked up. Still, Boston couldn’t really make much headway into denting the lead.
Trailing 74-49 with one minute left in the third quarter (yes, that was really the score), a small burst of momentum carried Boston into the break. Tony Delk, their backup point guard and another Pitino Kentucky guy, hit two free throws. After trading turnovers with a bogus charge call going against Anderson, the Celtics got a steal and transition layup for Rogers on the final possession:
The small 4-0 run brought the Celtics down 21 entering the final frame, but it was really the antics of Pierce and Walker between quarters that propelled this team to victory. Walker, the emotional frontrunner of the group, lit into his team during the break, as color commentator PJ Carlesimo noted on the NBC broadcast:
“[The Nets laughing at us] was the jist of the message–they’re disrespecting us right now,” said Carlesimo to paraphrase Walker’s tirade. “We can’t back down, we’ve got to play. It doesn’t matter whether we win this game or not. We’ve got to go back at the Nets right now.”
In a seven-game series, momentum is everything. To go into New Jersey and steal Game 2 on the road brought that boost to the Celts. To hand it back without a whimper, barely mustering 50 points through three quarters, wouldn’t cut it. If the series was to be anything other than a runaway, they needed to make their impact known and show the Nets they wouldn’t quit.
Then the fun began.
Pierce started off the fun by getting going out of the break. Motivated by Walker to play tougher, The Truth knew he had to put his mark on the series. Pierce was ice cold in Game 2 as well, going 3-for-20. His drought was long, and O’Brien trusted him to get things started. He hit rookie Richard Jefferson with a nasty jab before bursting his way to the bucket:
Anderson was ready to pick Kidd up as soon as he crossed the timeline, and pressure from added bodies allowed him to swipe the ball away. Anderson pushed across, fed the ball to Walker down low, and watched as Antoine sliced his way to a quick lefty layup.
Under Scott’s tutelage, the Nets ran a fairly traditional Princeton scheme. Their big man, either Todd MacCulloch or Aaron Williams, would station himself just above the free throw line and set a million screens for cutters from the top. Neither were threats to shoot from deep, though. Tony Battie, who guarded MacCulloch to start the frame, would shadow any cutter coming off the screen and bump them wide. That coverage helped save layups, and encouraged Battie to fly around and double at the rim.
While the Nets slowed things down with their offense, the Celtics began to pick up the pressure with a little swarming defense of their own:
Battie and Jefferson would trade misses the next two trips, and the Celtics needed to push pace. A rebound and hit-ahead to Pierce gave him momentum for a one-on-one drive in transition. He didn’t waste the opportunity, getting the hoop and the harm:
The three-point play was followed by offensive goaltending from the Nets, and another quick rip move from Pierce that put Jefferson in the torture chamber once again. Not two minutes into the fourth quarter and the lead had been cut to twelve.
Boston was rocking and the Nets, comfortably settled into their lead, were shaken. Both Martin and Jefferson were in foul trouble, further limiting their ability to counter aggression with aggression. A timeout couldn’t slow the frenzy.
NBA commissioner David Stern was the first to speak up when the broadcast returned, interviewed in the arena about the stunning turn of events in the last few moments. “Basketball is back in Boston,” he said, “it doesn’t get any better for the fans than this.”
But Boston kept playing through their best option. Possession after possession, they’d dump the ball to Pierce on the left wing and let him isolate. The Nets continued to double him and he made selfless plays time and time again. He skipped to an Anderson mid-range to cut the deficit to ten, and a few possessions later hit Kittles with another vicious spin move to a finger roll:
Pierce was a problem and with Jefferson sitting after picking up his fifth foul, the Nets had no answer. They had to keep doubling with Kidd and hoping someone else would miss.
The lead hovered around ten for most of the next four or five minutes. O’Brien went a tad smaller, putting Rogers in for Battie at the 5 and trying to stretch the Nets out to give Pierce another shooter to pass to. The Nets drove to the rim time and time again, living at the line and aiming to take the enthusiasm out of the crowd.
Down by 10 with 4:41 to go, the Rogers substitution started to really pay dividends. Rogers went on a 6-2 run all on his own, with all six points coming from the charity stripe. He found himself in the right place at the right time, getting fouled after a loose ball in transition, an offensive rebound falling into his lap, and a backcourt turnover thrown directly to him resulting in his final pair.
Rogers going 6-for-6 was so crucial. The Celts were down six with just three minutes to go after his final points from the stripe. Many Nets were in foul trouble, while Walker was embattled with four of his own.
The entire crowd held their breath on the ensuing possession. A missed floater by Martin and botched putback slam by Williams led to a tip-out that the Celtics retrieved before scurrying for a fast break. Anderson wisely slowed down, got Walker a post-up on K-Mart, and wisely got two more free throws. He downed them both, Martin picked up his fifth, and the game was down to four.
Meanwhile, the Nets’ ace had gone cold. Kidd hadn’t been heard from in minutes as he played administrator on offense. His pick-and-roll playmaking drew Walker’s fifth foul and returned the lead to six. On defense, Kidd switched assignments to match up with Pierce and try to shut things down once and for all.
The glorified free throw contest broke out until under the two minute mark. Down five, the Celts needed a bucket and went back to Pierce. Knowing the double was coming, he didn’t have a lot of time to go to work on the smaller Kidd. A quick, decisive move could get him to the bucket if he caught the ball low enough.
Another savvy scoring move brought this to a one possession game for the first time since early in the first quarter:
Pierce’s feel for how to score from the pinch post was so advanced at such a young age and this game served as a precursor for the rest of his decorated career. His presence commanded this comeback and proved the Nets had no answer for his talents.
The other hero of this comeback was undoubtedly Rogers, who made a crucial defensive play by stepping in and taking a charge on the next possession.
Once again, Boston posted Pierce on Kidd and got two free throws out of it to shrink the gap to one with 46 seconds to go. Kittles would brick his 3-pointer on New Jersey’s next attempt, and two more Pierce free throws gave Boston the lead. By that point, he had single-handedly outscored the Nets in the quarter, 18-16.
Clearly rattled, the Nets coughed up their next look and gift-wrapped a layup to hand the Celtics a three-point lead and an insurmountable advantage heading into the closing seconds. It capped the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in history:
We know how the rest of the series went. New Jersey responded in a big way, winning three straight to head to the NBA Finals, but those moments of a rocking Fleet Center still give chills to the Celtics fans who believed in those pesky underdogs.
The game itself lives in folklore due to not just what they overcame in the moment, but what it showed about Pierce. This was his coming out party on a national stage, giving the Celtics a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals with his fourth quarter heroics. This was his night, a night that lives on in the annuls of Celtics history.