BOSTON — He lay in a heap on the parquet floor, visibly weeping into the silk-suited sleeve of his doctor.
He was pushed in a wheelchair down a narrow back hallway, head down, season over.
Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtics captain, was carried from the opening game of the NBA Finals in the third quarter Thursday night with an apparent serious knee injury that momentarily deadened and distracted the Los Angeles Lakers.
Just in time for Pierce to come running back to the court and finish them off.
To nearly 50 years of delicious Celtics-Lakers lore, add a new apparent bit of chicanery.
Call it the Fake N’Shake.
The Celtics won Game 1, 98-88, on the momentum of a recovery that smacked more of professional wrestling than professional basketball.
When Pierce crumpled on the floor after being apparently faked out of his kneecap by Kobe Bryant with 6:52 left in the third quarter, the Lakers led by four points.
When he returned after just 1:45 had ticked off the game clock, the Celtics led by one.
The “Rocky” theme played. The crowd roared. Pierce hobbled out with drama dripping from every step.
He was so hurt, he immediately began sprinting around the stunned Lakers defenders.
He was in such pain, he hit consecutive three pointers late in the period that gave the Celtics the lead for good.
At which point, a Lakers season filled with colorful adjectives had been reduced to one word.
Afterward, Pierce played the part of the resurrected hero, shaking his head at the wonder of it all.
“You know, I think God sent this angel down and said, `Hey, you’re going to be all right, you need to get back out there, show them what you’ve got,’” he said.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were just shaking their heads, period.
“You know, you don’t know what happens,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Pierce. “Guys can break a shoelace and go out, the pants break down, a drawstring falls apart.”
Pierce said he heard his knee pop.
“Once I heard the pop, and I couldn’t move it at first, I thought that was it,” he said.
He was carried from the court. While the Lakers were staring at him, the Celtics were being inspired by him.
“I reminded them … there will be adversity and you’ve got to overcome it,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. “I said, this is it right here.”
The Celtics responded, the Lakers retreated, and the game was never the same.
Said the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett: “(Pierce) gave everybody life. I could tell that everybody was rejuvenated.”
Said the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant: “We got a little stagnant.”
According to Pierce, doctors have diagnosed him with a strained meniscus, with his chances of playing in Game 2 on Sunday unknown.
As for the Lakers, in the end, it was their reliable attack and steady defense that seemed injured.
Bryant’s jump shot was strained, he threw up 26 attempts and made just nine, forcing shots as if feeling the pressure of his first NBA Finals game without Shaquille O’Neal.
Some of it was the new Celtics bumping him away from the basket. But some of it was the old Bryant just being impatient.
“I said to him, ‘Check it out, he had some guys open in other parts of the offense,’ but he said he had some good looks,” Jackson said. “You live on that. That’s going to happen.”
In other words, Jackson is cutting his league MVP some slack. For now.
“They’re going to be determined and not let me get to the paint, particularly in the half court,” Bryant said. “Those little mid-range jumpers that I get, I’ve got to knock those in.”
Then there was the Laker inside presence, which was also strained, Pau Gasol being pounded by Garnett while Lamar Odom simply disappeared at times.
The lowlight was a soaring dunk by Garnett over a confused Gasol in the game’s final minutes.
All those “Beat L.A” chants that began in the streets outside the TD Banknorth Garden long before the game?
On this night, it was Garnett who did the beating.
“We didn’t get after the ball on the board and opportunities that were there for us,” said Jackson. “They did a much better job on the boards. That’s the difference in the ballgame.”
That, and this angel that somehow transformed a shattered kneecap into a soaring jump shot into a scintillating victory.
No official word on this yet, but here’s guessing that angel smoked a cigar and answered to Red.