Boston's record 2002 comeback over the Nets

By Cort Reynolds

The Boston Bruins' four-goal comeback in the third period and overtime of game seven in their first round NHL playoff series vs. Toronto conjured up notions of great Celtic rallies past.

As far as series go, the Celtics pulled off classic 1-3 comebacks to beat the rival 76ers in the eastern finals in 1968 and 1981, with Boston going on to grab the championship in six games a round later in both instances.

But what was the greatest single-game Celtic rally in a playoff game?

Let's journey back 11 years to the 2002 playoffs. Boston was in the midst of its first deep post-season run since the days of Bird and McHale over a decade before. They edged past the 76ers 3-2 in round one before taking out another familiar foe in Detroit in five to reach the east finals for the first time since 1988.

The two foes split the first two games in New Jersey, each winning by seven. Game three in Boston started out poorly for the hosts. The Nets raced to a 28-13 lead even though top scorer Keith Van Horn picked up two very early fouls.

With reserve Aaron Williams leading the charge, New Jersey extended its cushion to 54-34 at the half. The lead reached its largest margin at 65-39 after a Van Horn jumper with 8:31 left in the third period.

The rout appeared to be on and the Nets were already chalking up a 2-1 series lead.

Boston quietly outscored NJ 14-9 the rest of the period yet still trailed by 21 at 74-53 heading to the final stanza. But then Paul Pierce, who had scored just nine points on two of 14 shooting in the first 36 minutes, noticed some Nets reserves were laughing at the badly-trailing Bostonians.

That slight stirred Celtic pride, and in the ensuing huddle Antoine Walker implored his teammates to not give up and regain some respect by fighting back.

The NBA's biggest playoff fourth quarter deficit overcome had been 18 by Phoenix over Houston in 1994, when the Suns rallied from 100-82 down for a 124-117 triumph in game two of their western semifinal series.

Pierce immediately went to work on breaking that record by scoring three inside baskets. The Celtics charged into the final stanza with an 11-0 spurt that cut the deficit to 74-64.

The Nets restored the lead to 13 but Boston, buoyed by an increasingly loud crowd who sensed history in the making, kept chipping away. They pulled within eight, and then a pair of free throws by backup forward Rodney Rogers got them within 88-82 with 3:12 left to play.

Pierce worked his way inside for a layup to pull the Celtics with 90-87 with 97 ticks remaining. Thirty seconds later, the 6-7 forward canned a pair of free throws to make it 90-89.

The new Garden (then the Fleet Center) shook with the cheers more loudly than it ever had in its seven years. The old Boston Garden had seen many, many great moments, but this was the new Garden's real christening.

Net two guard Kerry Kittles, never known for his shooting, missed a three-pointer and Boston rebounded with under 50 seconds to go.

Pierce drove to the basket, was fouled and again splashed both foul shots to give Boston an improbable 91-90 lead as the crowd erupted. They had outscored the fading Nets 52-25 over 20 minutes to come all the way back from 26 down.

Kittles then lost the ball on the dribble and Celtic playmaker Kenny Anderson grabbed the loose ball. He drove to the hop for a layup and was blocked by a scrambling Kittles, but goaltending was called to put Boston on top 93-90.

Former Celtic guard great JoJo White led the cheers from the sidelines.

Van Horn's three try to tie was partially blocked by Walker on the way up and it fell well short. Pierce rebounded was fouled with 17.6 seconds to go and split the pair for a four-point lead, an unthinkable situation just 40 minutes or so earlier.

Ex-Laker Byron Scott, then the Net head coach, looked on in shock.

Jason Kidd rushed the ball upcourt under pressure and missed a three-pointer. Kittles rebounded and in midair tossed it back to Kidd, who again misfired from the right wing despite being open. The rebound went out of bounds to the Nets with 5.4 seconds still to go.

Kidd took the in-bounds pass and had his left corner trey partially blocked by Rogers. Kidd got the ball back and tried another corner triple which rimmed out at the buzzer. The stunned Nets walked off the floor like zombies while the Celtics celebrated the miraculous win.

Walker jumped up on the scorer's table to punctuate the rally amid the raucous fans. Pierce hugged several teammates at midcourt and high-fived others as the crowd continued to go wild.

“I couldn't even hear myself in that fourth quarter, and I think they (the Nets) were kind of intimidated by the crowd and the simple fact that we were gaining momentum,” explained Pierce of the improbable comeback win.

After mustering just 54 points over the first three periods, Boston had outscored New Jersey by an astounding 41-16 margin in the fourth quarter. The Nets misfired on 18 of their 22 shots in the fateful stanza and committed six costly turnovers.

The Celtics hit on 11 of 19 from the field and canned a whopping 18 of 21 at the foul line in the fourth period

Boston head coach Jim O'Brien, in his post-game press conference, called his team's frustrating first 36 minutes “purgatory, it might have been closer to Hell for three quarters, but that last one was Eden.”

Pierce, who led the NBA in fourth quarter points that season, scored 19 of his 28 points in the final period. He made six of seven shots from the field and seven foul shots in the fateful fourth period.

Walker contributed 23 points, four assists and a dozen rebounds. Anderson tallied 15 points and Rogers added 10 off the bench.

Kittles topped NJ with 19 points while Williams scored 18 off the pines. Kidd amassed a dozen points and 11 assists, but missed all seven of his three-point tries, including four in the final 15 seconds. Van Horn was held to six points in just 18 minutes.

“I've never been a part of anything like this in my life,” said Walker of the rally.

The devastating loss was expected to deflate the Nets, but they showed resilience in winning game four at Boston. They raced to a 13-point lead and held off another Celtic comeback to win, 94-92.

NJ then went on to take the last two games of the series to advance to their first NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Lakers. Their gutty response to a potentially back-breaking loss prevented the first Celtic/Laker NBA Finals since 1987.

Ironically, Phoenix also lost its series to eventual champion Houston in seven games after their previous-record comeback in the 1994 playoffs.

Perhaps Boston was emotionally and physically drained by their record-setting comeback in game three, and was unable to reach that same level of intensity necessary to close the series out.

New Jersey summoned the guts to rebound and harnessed the shame of the game three defeat to pull off an impressive rally of its own over the final three contest of the series.

But for one incredibly great game, Boston woke up the echoes from an unmatched glorious past to bring back Celtic pride.