BOSTON, MAY 30 -- The Boston Celtics -- hobbled, lame and supposedly incapable of successfully defending their NBA title -- moved into the league championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers with a stirring 117-114 victory today over the Detroit Pistons in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals.

When people talk about the Boston Celtics and the Boston Garden and its legendary mystique, they aren't talking solely about improbable plays in the closing moments of games but rather about an entire aura, an atmosphere in which the sport of professional basketball is transformed from an often pedestrian nature into something resembling art.

Today there were no last-second steals to evoke memories of days gone by, merely two teams playing at the highest level in the final quarter, under circumstances that could humble even the most veteran squad.

Playing in oppressive heat that started at 85 degrees and increased over the course of the game, the teams matched brilliant play after brilliant play.

"As tough as the conditions were and with the minutes our {starters} had to play, it was incredible," said Celtics forward Darren Daye. "I got tired just in the {11} minutes I played . . . it was so hot I don't know how those guys could play all those minutes."

In the end, Boston, led by forward Larry Bird's 37 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, survived to face the Lakers. Guard Joe Dumars had 35 points to pace Detroit.

The league championship series will begin Tuesday at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., but it may turn out to be anticlimatic, not because of the Lakers' apparent superiority, but rather because it's hard to envision matching the events of this series.

"They were giving it all they had and we were giving it all we had," said Detroit guard Isiah Thomas, who had 25 points and nine assists before fouling out in the closing seconds. "The fourth quarter was exciting -- you had to make every play, every shot."

That actually was the case throughout the game, which featured 13 ties and 22 lead changes, but the search for excellence was never more evident than in the closing 12 minutes.

Detroit played that period without star forward Adrian Dantley, who suffered a concussion in a head-to-head collision with teammate Vinnie Johnson in the final eight seconds of the third period. The former DeMatha High School and Notre Dame star was to be hospitalized overnight in Boston for observation.

"They just kept coming," said Thomas. "It's unfortunate that Dantley wasn't in there; I think he would have made a difference."

Even without Dantley, the Pistons (who led by 31-24 after one quarter and by 56-55 at halftime) more than hung tough.

Trailing, 81-80, Pistons center Bill Laimbeer scored the first points of the fourth quarter on a jumper, but it was rookie Dennis Rodman who really set in motion the chain of spectacular plays with a flying dunk and free throw after being fouled by Bird.

That put the Pistons up, 85-81, but they would get just one more basket over the next 4:42, missing 10 straight shots in one stretch. Yet with 4:18 remaining, the score was 99-99 and both teams began the move into a higher plane of performance.

There was Bird driving to the basket from the left side, hesitating, then hitting a left-handed bank shot from 12 feet. That play was trumped by Thomas, who used his dizzying speed to drive past Danny Ainge for a spinning reverse layup.

But the game's biggest sequence was ultimately the most frustrating for Detroit. Ainge missed a jumper, which Bird rebounded. His miss was followed by Kevin McHale, who fed Bird for yet another miss. That one was rebounded again by McHale, who missed a shot of his own. That one was retrieved by Robert Parish, who had his attempt blocked by Rodman.

The basketball squirted out to Bird, who passed to Ainge, who hit a three-point field goal from the left corner with 3:06 to play.

"As soon as I took it I knew it was good," Ainge said. "I'd missed a couple of shots earlier and I wanted to make up for it."

After playing 1:12 of defense, the Pistons were one point worse off than if they had conceded a layup.

"We had it, we had it and it just kept getting away," said Rodman. "That was the turning point; it killed us. We just looked around and said what do we have to do."

It seemed the Pistons indeed had accomplished everything necessary for victory short of having the higher number on the scoreboard. The team's younger athletes, infinitely more spry than the Celtics, had run and jumped their way to substantial margins in fast break points. And today, Thomas, super-sub Vinnie Johnson and Dumars were superior to Boston's guards in outside shooting.

But what the Pistons ultimately lacked was the knowledge of how to win. That also was the case in Game 5, when Detroit lost a 108-107 decision in the final five seconds.

"The way the series was going, we didn't want to lose to them," said McHale. "It was very physical and Rodman was running around like a high school kid, waving his arms. We made a collective decision not to lose, and when we do that we very rarely lose."

Yet Ainge's basket didn't seal the win for the Celtics. Detroit immediately called a timeout and Thomas scored when play resumed.

From there Boston never went ahead by more than four until three seconds remained, when two free throws by Ainge made it 117-111, enough to leave Thomas and his teammates dejected in the visiting locker room.

"It's the most difficult thing to face as an athlete," Thomas said. "You train all summer, do the things you have to do to win and things just don't happen for you."