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Steve Aschburner

Paul Pierce (left) and LeBron James both fouled out Sunday, but the Celtics survived.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

In a foul-fest, Celts fare better without their star scorer

Posted Jun 4 2012 12:03PM

BOSTON -- Mickael Pietrus was asked the reputation question, the one about superstar calls vs. peon calls. It's a question that technically need never get asked as long as a game is being officiated properly and it's Player A vs. Player B vs. Player C.

But this is the NBA, where future Hall of Famers tangle with lunch-pail participants all the time. And so it gets asked: When LeBron James backed into and through Pietrus with 1:51 left in overtime of Game 4 Sunday night at TD Garden and the whistle went against James for his sixth and disqualifying foul, was Pietrus surprised?

The Boston Celtics' backup swingman looked up, smiled and, in his French-accented English said: "Paul got six fouls. Paul is a legend, too."

Paul Pierce, Boston's counterpart to James as an All-Star small forward and veteran scorer, did indeed sit down with six fouls. His last came at 4:22 of the overtime. Like James', Pierce's foul-out came on offense. Like James, Pierce cost his team a valuable piece at a most pivotal time.

Unlike James, Pierce risked having the clock run out on Boston's five-year era of the new Big Three -- the final home game, anyway, if this series slipped away quickly -- while he sat helplessly on the side. Unlike James, he had put himself and his team in this position before, fouling out of Game 7 of the East semifinal round against Philadelphia and then doing it again in Boston's Game 2 loss in Miami last week.

And maybe because of that, the Celtics were able to cope just a little bit better without one of their main guys than the Heat did without James. Just enough to make the difference in a 93-91 Boston victory to even the best-of-seven series at 2-2.

Game 4 featured that rarest of occurrences: Two star players fouling out of an NBA playoff game, in overtime. In a league that labors long and hard to dispel the cliché about make-up calls, this one -- on paper -- almost looked like a make-up disqualification.

But this wasn't played on paper; it was out there in real time, with players, coaches and referees all reacting on the fly, trying to get it right, occasionally getting it wrong. There is a premium put on fouls and free throws at this time of year, and all got caught up in it Sunday -- four of James' fouls and two of Pierce's, including the final two for each of them, were offensive fouls.

"It was a cut, scratch, grab, hold, elbow type of game," Pierce said. "I mean, it was. Nobody was gonna give an edge. Y'know, so I'd say it's a classic. You rarely see that. You rarely see that when you've got, y'know, two star players fouling out."

Said Celtics guard Ray Allen: "It was like chess -- they took our queen and we took their queen. ... I don't ever think I've seen that before, but [Rajon] Rondo was on the floor, I'm on the floor, Kevin [Garnett] is on the floor, [Dwyane] Wade is on the floor. All the game has to be done -- all that has to happen is it has to be won. We don't care what it looks like."

No doubt the game was decided by the players left behind. But the voids opened when first Pierce, then James exited played a large part in the outcome.

Allen talked with Pierce moments before the crucial whistle against Boston blew. "I told Paul before we came out of the [break before overtime], be smart out there because you never know what can happen," Allen said. "That was just a bad situation we were in."

The Celtics had three players who dragged five fouls each into overtime. There was a very real chance that their fate this spring, heading into an uncertain offseason, could be decided with the likes of Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels and Pietrus on the court. Which, come to think of it, it was -- for a couple more days, anyway.

For Miami, the circumstances seemed less dire. Only James had five fouls by then -- Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony and Wade were toting four each -- but James never had fouled out as a Heat player. He hadn't fouled out, period, since back in April 2008.

Still, the concern was, would it limit his aggressiveness the rest of the way? This is a guy with crunch-time issues when he has zero fouls.

"Is there a textbook for that?" Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I had to get him out for a couple of minutes."

The worst part for Boston came in the overtime, in those two-and-a-half minutes when Pierce was gone but James was still around. Somehow, the Celtics managed not to sag. They shook off Pierce's departure and leaned more on the survivors. Rondo was caught on camera prodding Kevin Garnett that it was "time."

"It changes when Paul goes out," Garnett said. "The scorers -- Rajon, myself, Ray and everybody has to pick up the load a little bit. ... Like I've always said, we are a defensive team that can score the basketball. When Paul goes out, Rajon knows to be a lot more aggressive. Ray knows to be a lot more aggressive. [We] just stay aggressive."

Said Boston coach Doc Rivers: "All we kept saying was, we're in overtime. One bucket at a time. Let's lean on our defense, and we're going to go pick-and-roll for the most part."

Then James went posting up in transition too hard, backing through Pietrus in what -- given the controversies of these playoffs created by big- and little-name players flopping for bogus foul calls -- could have been interpreted a different way. But Pietrus was firm about how correctly he did his job in that moment.

"I'm not playing this 'flop' game," he said. "Because that makes you weak. ... It's not about the ref. It's about the two teams trying to win basketball games. Y'know? Sometimes you have to take things personal and try to stop the best player."

Said James: "I don't think I fouled him. I don't think it was a foul. ... I don't foul out. If I'm going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it had actually been a foul on me. Whatever."

Pierce exhaled a little, the guilt of maybe costing his team the game at least equalized. "Oh it's very frustrating," he said, "but it's gratifying when you see the other star player fouling out also."

There had been gutsy foul calls, there had been goofy ones. The two that sent Pierce and James packing at least were the real deal. "The play-calling was all over the place as far as the refs," Garnett said, "and I thought both teams played through it."

Boston was at home, which meant it was more likely to get the help it needed from its bench. Miami, understandably, was a little more rattled, on the road and never having experienced a James disqualification.

"You lose one of your big options," Spoelstra said. "We were running a lot of triggers with him involved, and so we had to evolve and go to something else. That unit hasn't done a whole lot together. So we were just trying to survive at that point."

It very nearly did, but Shane Battier's 3-point try missed with 22.5 seconds left and Wade's, on a good look from the arc out front, didnt connect, either.

Pierce, who maybe has gotten too comfortable fouling out, could breathe again. James gets the next game at home, and likely won't be fouling out again anytime soon.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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