Two years before “Believe in Boston” and the 2004 Red Sox became famous, Celtics fans were given a reason to believe.
The series was 1-1 when the New Jersey Nets entered the FleetCenter against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was the Celtics' first finals appearance in 14 years.
The C’s were sluggish through the first three quarters and the FleetCenter was utterly silent. It was a disappointing return to Boston; the Celtics had taken Game 2 of the ECF in New Jersey 93-86.
Boston looked flat and sporadic as they turned the ball over and fell short on defensive rotations. Pierce struggled throughout the game, registering only one point in the first quarter and a total of nine through the first three quarters.
The fourth quarter started with the Celtics trailing 74-53. Then veterans Pierce and Walker began what became the most historic comeback in NBA playoff history.
The FleetCenter was silent as the quarter began. Little by little, though, the fans began to get behind their team. The duo of Pierce and Walker combined for 11 straight points over the first two minutes and 44 seconds to bring the score to 74-62.
The arena erupted and the Nets were forced to call a timeout. Coming out of the timeout, the FleetCenter was rocking. NBC reporters immediately went down to interview commissioner David Stern.
In a barely audible voice, Stern proclaimed that “basketball is back in Boston.” The Boston faithful were on their feet in response to the effort from their team.
Kenny Anderson dropped in five straight baskets as the Celtics continued their firestorm. The team had a 10-point deficit with just over five minutes to go.
Boston had trailed by as many as 26 points in the game; with just over a minute to go it was a one-point game. The Celtics continued their strong defensive effort in the fourth quarter as Rodney Rogers drew a charge.
On the very next possession, Pierce was fouled and connected on both of his free throws to take a one-point lead.
With 29 seconds left in the fourth, and the Celtics up by two, Anderson forced the sixth turnover of the quarter and connected on a fast break bucket.
It was all over after that.
When the clock struck zero, Walker lay on the floor and Pierce leaped onto the announcers table. No one had ever witnessed such an improbable comeback. Pierce was 2-14 entering the fourth quarter, but ultimately scored 19 of Boston’s 41 points.
In 171 tries, no NBA team had ever come back from a 19-point deficit.
The Celtics took the 2-1 series lead, but would eventually lose in six games to the Nets. Boston wouldn’t return to the ECF until 2008, when they would claim banner No. 17 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite the loss, Boston had their leader. Pierce averaged 7.9 points per game in the fourth quarter that season—coincidentally behind only the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant—as he cemented his place as the ultimate closer.