CHICAGO - On the warm bus back from the United Center to the team hotel, there was plenty of chatter between players, assistant coaches and some team executives on the first of two Celtics buses making the trip. After leaving the arena, just above the din tires on the highway, you could hear the familiar riffs of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive playing on the bus radio.
A nice coincidence to be sure, but it was certainly fitting to hear Takin' Care of Business after a 107-86 blowout victory against the Bulls in Game 3 that gave the Celtics a 2-1 series lead and a day off from practice -- so much for workin' overtime...
It comes as no surprise that the Celtics' captain set the tone. After a pair of relatively quiet games in Boston to start the series, Pierce came out on fire at the start Thursday night, connecting on his first six field goals, scoring 13 points in the first quarter to stake the C's to a 32-21 lead that would turn into a 30-plus point advantage in the second half.
"I thought he set the tone for us. I thought he came out extremely aggressive and attacked early," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Pierce, hours after telling reporters in pregame that he wasn't worried about Pierce, considering his team had dropped 118 points on the Bulls in Game 2. "He played the perfect decoy but was aggressive at the same time. I thought it was beautiful how he played."
With business taken care of early in Game 3, Paul Pierce got to enjoy a laugh on the bench with Kevin Garnett.Joanthan Daniel/NBAE/Getty
The Bulls' side of the story would chalk this one up to the nerves of hosting their first playoff game at home. The team turned it over 14 times in the first half, leading to easy transition hoops for the C's and draining the Bulls of any confidence gained from the Game 1 upset. Bulls rookie coach Vinny Del Negro, chastised in the Chicago papers for managing to mismanage his timeouts at the end of both Game 1 and Game 2, thought his team played poorly but also recognized that their opponents had a lot to do with it.
"We started out poor, we were tentative, very nervous. We missed a lot of free throws and our ball movement was terrible. You have to give the Celtics a lot of credit. They are a veteran team, defending champions and they play on the road as well as anyone," Del Negro said. "I though we lost a little confidence, especially the young guys."
Rivers, on the other hand, finally saw the Celtics team that won it's 17th World Championship last season -- a title won on the strength of team defense and the cagey play of veterans. He said he was "thrilled" with the way his team played, and wasn't at all concerned with whether they'd rattled their opponents; the analysis in his locker room revolved around his own team this week.
"We were more concerned with ourselves and for two days I heard we couldn't play defense. And our guys came out and played well tonight and I thought it was terrific," Rivers said.
And while Rivers said before the game that he wasn't concerned about Pierce's prior lack of offensive output, the rest of the Celtics seemed to be set at ease when The Truth came out of the gates firing.
"He's pretty much the most confident guy in the league. No matter how he played the first two games, he's going to bring it regardless. If he didn't play well tonight he was going to bring it game four," said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, his feet planted firmly in a bucket of ice after the game. "You don't really have to worry about Paul, we know how he plays. He's going to show up."
If only the same could be said for some of the Bulls, like Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, who was handed his award by the Commissioner in a pregame ceremony but wasn't seen much afterward, scoring just nine points and committing seven turnovers. Tyrus Thomas didn't cover himself in glory either; he had just six points on 2-for-8 shooting.
Del Negro was pretty clear about how his team got buried early. "They were killing us in the first half. Paul Pierce started out hot, hit some tough shots. We were playing catch-up the whole game."
After dropping 24 points on the Bulls, Pierce was certainly happy with his own effort in Game 3, but he may have been more proud of a team effort that was closer to his expectations of a championship-caliber squad.
"We felt tonight was the way we want to play," Pierce said. "Offensively and defensively we were controlling the boards, we were causing turnovers, we were limiting their score options. We feel like we can still play better basketball."
If Pierce is right and the C's improve on Sunday, they'd be heading home with a 3-1 lead and a chance to finish off the first round in short order.