Pierce Takes a Knee, C's Take Home Court
BOSTON - Before anyone considers a trademark infringement case, let’s set the record straight: Paul Pierce was staging epic fourth quarter playoff comebacks in 2002 -- remember that 26-point special against the Nets in the Conference Finals? -- when a 14-year old Tim Tebow was being home-schooled.
Pierce home-schooled the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena Tuesday night, leading a 87-80 comeback win in Game 2 that tied the series at 1-1. So, we’ll forgive Pierce for taking a page from Tebow when he took a knee after nailing a pair of free throws with 1:15 to play.
Given Pierce’s 36-point, 14-rebound virtuoso performance, we’ll also excuse his eight turnovers. After all, everyone in the building knew Pierce would be the focus of the Celtics’ attack. And still, despite some suspect ball handling at times, the Hawks couldn’t stop him.
The Celtics went into Game 2 without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, but thanks to Pierce, with support from Avery Bradley (defense and energy), Kevin Garnett (defense and rebounding) and Keyon Dooling (defense and 3s), they came out of it with home court advantage.
“I knew had to step up my scoring tonight,” Pierce said after the Celtics stole home court advantage. “Every guy stepped up tonight. We played great defense throughout. Everybody that played tonight contributed. That took a lot of pressure off me so I could be more aggressive on the offensive end.”
Wasting no time, Pierce was aggressive seconds after tip-off, nailing his first four field goals, scoring Boston’s first nine points and helping them avoid the sluggish start that buried them in Game 1 on Sunday. Pierce got better as the game wore on Tuesday night, knocking down jumpers and getting to the free throw line, all the while engulfed by Hawks defenders who had fewer weapons than usual upon which to keep an eye.
It was his largest statistical playoff performance in nearly a decade (he dropped 37 and 10 in Game 4 vs. the Pacers in 2003), and it changed the complexion of the series completely. The Celtics now return home to Boston for Game 3 Friday night with a tied series, home court advantage in their back pocket and the NBA’s assist king back in their backcourt.
“He was a monster. He was great...his leadership, his intensity,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said about Pierce, before noting that the captain was quick to shower Dooling with praise immediately upon his return to the locker room after the game.
Garnett, who played a solid defensive game and contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds, liked what he saw from No. 34. “When Rondo’s out he’s more like a point-forward,” Garnett said. “But at the same time he has to stay aggressive and I thought he did a good job of balancing that.”
Pierce finished the first half with 16 points, and even though the Celtics trailed 44-41 at the break, they were in a far better position than they were on Sunday night. The Celtics looked lethargic in the opening minutes of Game 1, and promptly dug themselves a big 13-point hole in the first quarter when they gave up 31 points over the first 12 minutes to a Hawks team that was fast-breaking and dunking all over them.
The C’s also stumbled in the third quarter of Game 2, and before they knew it were trailing by 11 points again, at 65-54. However, on the strength of the first half of an eight-minute field-goal shutout pitched by the Celtics defense, Pierce and company knocked it down to a 66-61 deficit as they reached the fourth quarter. Bradley’s jumper with 8:48 to play tied the game at 66-66.
Pierce, who played the entire second half, saved his best for the final stanza. He connected for 13 fourth-quarter points as the Celtics sewed together a 21-14 run to close the game.
“It was a team win. I can’t take all of the credit,” Pierce said. “Kevin was great on defense, Keyon hit a couple of big 3s to keep us in the game, so it was a good team win.”
As for the Hawks, who failed to hold serve at home and watched Josh Smith (16 points, 12 rebounds), arguably their best player in the series, hobble off the floor in the fourth quarter, they maintain there’s a long way to go in the series.
“It’s still a series. We’ve got out hands full now,” Atlanta swingman Joe Johnson said after scoring 22 points in just over 38 minutes of play. “We have to stay poised, stay confident. Just because they won on our home floor doesn’t mean the series is over.”
It doesn’t mean the series is over, but it does swing the momentum in Boston’s favor, something that didn’t seem probable just 24 hours ago when Rondo was being suspended and Allen wasn’t any closer to returning to the lineup.
There’s still no news on Allen at this point, but a few extra days could be the time he needs to return to the lineup. Either way, the Celtics are much better situated than they were 24 hours ago.
Things can change quickly in the NBA Playoffs.