Flash back to 2:52 left in the third quarter of last night’s game. At home, with overwhelming momentum and a one-game advantage in the series, the Atlanta Hawks held an 11 point lead, their largest of the night. In a season that saw this Celtics team experience more than your typical mixture of lows and highs—numerable moments where they were on the canvas with the referee hovering over their head, quickly approaching a 10 count—it finally looked like both this series and the Big 3 era were coming to a surprising close.
But in the next two minutes, Paul Anthony Pierce would sink three free-throws, grab his eighth and ninth rebounds of the game, and launch a velvety jumper that would kiss the front rim, bounce up in the air, land back on the iron, and drip through the net like it was made of syrup. All of a sudden, Atlanta’s lead was down to a manageable five points; for what feels like the one millionth time since we came to know him as “The Truth”, Pierce had saved the Boston Celtics, allowing his own playoff legacy to continue by building on it with a timeless performance.
His brilliant fourth quarter, where he nearly outscored the entire Hawks squad with 13 of his game-high 36 points in the final 12 minutes, was the stuff of legend, and the type of panache that rationalizes those who place Pierce among the 50 greatest players this league has ever seen. Here’s a shot chart detailing what he did throughout the game, provided by NBA.com.
The importance of this game for both sides was obvious to everyone watching it, but nobody grabbed ahold of the moment quite like Pierce—and nobody had more responsibiliy and pressure weighing on his shoulders. Within the opening three minutes of the game, he had already scored nine points on a wide variety of offensive moves. (When Paul Pierce has the ball in his hands, you can almost see him scrolling through his own mind, going through all the different options in which he can score. I liken it to when I’m sitting on my couch, remote controller in hand, trying to decide which movie I’m going to watch On Demand. That’s how easy he makes it look.)
The single star of this game was Pierce, but Boston’s defense can’t be overlooked. This team was deep in a hole, with dirt getting shoveled in when everybody began to make oven crisp rotations. In the first quarter, starting point guard Mickael Pietrus picked up three immediate fouls that forced him to the bench for the rest of the half, and made Doc utilize a 10-man rotation. But behind performances by the likes of Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic that can best be described as professional, the Celtics stayed alive long enough to make their captain’s 36 point, 14 rebound game a relevant one. In the second half, Atlanta shot 27.5% from the floor and 20% from behind the three-point line. Apart from the first quarter of Game 1, these two teams have played each other tight in every period this season, but last night the Hawks were outscored by Boston 26-14 in the fourth quarter.
The most amazing thing about Pierce’s performance was that it opened the floor up for Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling, allowing the two to be a little more aggressive on the offensive end than they were in Game 1. Not only were Dooling’s two HUGE three-pointers Boston’s first of the series, but they were both assisted by Pierce. Coincidence? I think not.