The first two games of the Boston Celtics' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup with the Miami Heat featured a Paul Pierce who was just...steady. Tony Allen played the role of savior in Game 1, while Ray Allen and Glen Davis shared the honor in Game 2. And all the while, flying quietly below the radar was Paul Pierce, whose performances weren't breathtaking, or overwhelming, or even, in some cases, all that noticeable. His percentages were nothing to write home about (33.3 percent in Game 1, followed by 37.5 percent in Game 2), and he was not scoring the amount of points you typically associate with Paul Pierce (a modest 14.5 points per game average through the first two contests).
But what mattered more than anything else was the fact that the Celtics won both games, with defense maintaining its stance as priority number one. The Heat averaged an anemic 76.5 points through the first two games of the series, largely due to the defensive effort that was exhibited by the Celtics in the second half of Game 1 and all four quarters of Game 2.
And then it was time for Game 3, and the importance of it was evident the second the final seconds of Game 2 finished ticking away. The Celtics would be on the road for the first time in these playoffs. The Heat would resuscitate themselves on their home floor. Dwyane Wade would be much more assertive this time around. And suddenly, with all of these freshly developed variables entering the equation, the Celtics needed Paul Pierce to not be steady, but, instead, spectacular.
Having already eclipsed the 10-point mark by halftime of Game 3 (a feat he failed to accomplish in Games 1 and 2), Pierce kept himself rolling minutes into the third period with a shot clock-beating jumper on the left wing, which knotted the game at 53 apiece. And after Ray Allen attempted to turn the tide with a flurry of baskets of his own, Pierce tried slamming the door on the Heat with less than a minute left in the frame.
With 57 seconds left in the third quarter last night, Pierce buried a jumper from the top of the key with Dorell Wright in his face (foreshadowing, anyone?), and then converted an old-fashioned three-point play from Rondo off of a Tony Allen steal. Wade picked up a technical immediately after, and Pierce marched back to the free throw line and calmly drained the shot. And after Wade, sensing a two-for-one opportunity, slashed to the hole for a layup, Pierce rose up for a three-pointer, which found iron, but then found Rajon Rondo's out-stretched mits, giving Boston an extra possession, and quite possibly the final shot of the quarter. The ball ended up in Pierce's hands again and he rose back up and drained the three-pointer he so appeared to covet with 1.7 ticks left in the frame. In a span of 57 seconds, Pierce took a 71-70 Boston lead, and stretched it into an 80-72 advantage going into the fourth. In a span of 57 seconds, Pierce had scored nine points - the last nine points of the quarter for the Celtics.
It really wasn't just the fact that Pierce had racked up an 11-point third quarter, and was carrying 21 points into the final period. It was how confident he seemed with the ball in his hands, keeping a certain cool about him that routinely evades certain players in the postseason. Never once did he seem rushed - not even when he had to beat the shot clock at the start of the quarter. And when he started drilling baskets with less than a minute left, his demeanor was paramount. He was not hoping those shots would fall, he was wholeheartedly expecting them to. He had found the groove he needed - one that hasn't exactly alluded him throughout his career.
Two minutes into the fourth, he picked up where he left off with a three-pointer from the left corner, directly in front of Miami's bench. Only, there was no jawing, or whoofing, or barking, or anything of the sort. Pierce was locked in. The antics of guys like Quentin Richardson were far below him, kind of like Richardson's overall talent level.
But then came the speed bump. With 9:15 to go in Game 3, Wade stripped Pierce and went in for a layup. Then, on Boston's next possession, Pierce stepped out of bounds on the right side of the floor. Things grew even worse with 8:23 to play when Pierce drove in and was called for an offensive foul after he collided with Udonis Haslem in the lane, just outside of the restricted area. Three straight possessions and three straight giveaways for Pierce. Some would be demoralized by such a succession of events. Pierce was not. He simply looked peeved at the fact that this minor turbulence thought it could actually derail his evening. You saw how Pierce responded: He used a Garnett pick and drove right before pulling up for a devastating jumper just above the left elbow with 7:48 to play. His groove was intact.
Pierce hit the second of two free throws with 3:05 to play, tying the ballgame up at 92. Then, with 1:46 left he launched a three-pointer and missed, only to watch as Rondo again gobbled up the offensive rebound and fed the ball back to him. Not hesitating for the slightest of moments, he rose back up and drained another three-point attempt, putting Boston up 98-95. Wright was equal to the task on the other end, and the score would stay deadlocked at 98 until Boston's final possession.
After Wade failed to convert on a three-point field goal attempt, the C's secured the miss and called timeout with 11.7 left. Doc Rivers and Pierce apparently shared a moment of clarity: Pierce wanted the basketball. It was his game to win.
Much has been made this season about the supposed ineffectiveness of the Paul Pierce isolation play. It was now predictable, and Pierce was no longer capable of winning these things all by himself. But I know that when the C's got in that timeout last night, Doc didn't look at him and say: "Gee, Paul, we'd love to give you the ball. Really, we would. But hoopdata says you're only shooting 38 percent from the 16-23 foot range this season, so I think we're going to have to go with something else." Instead, Pierce demanded the ball and Doc probably said something like, "Everyone else get out of the way." Simple as that. See, in my eyes, stats can't account for that zone Pierce was in last night. The stat that said he was more likely to miss the shot than make it became irrelevant once Pierce had found the groove he needed to in order to take the game over. Sometimes, when your ace demands the ball, you just have to ignore the stats and believe in him. Maybe this play won't be protocol for the rest of these playoffs, but last night, it was the right call. Pierce was not to be stopped, no matter what the stats suggested. When it mattered most, Pierce was ready to do what he needed to do.
And you know what happened. He whittled the time away above the three-point arc...6 second...5 seconds...4 seconds...3 seconds...2 seconds...then he zipped to the right, dribbled once, stepped back, and faded. Wright's hand extended outward to contest, but in the replay you can clearly see Pierce's wrist flick over Wright's hand, proving he wasn't all that bothered on the final play. Buzzer. Swish. Game.
Spectacular? I'd say so.