(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The first two minutes and eight seconds of last night's game made it seem like it would undoubtedly be Paul Pierce's evening. Over that brief span of time Pierce had already rattled off the first nine points for his team on a pair of mid-range jumpers, a three-pointer, and two free throws, and was settling into one of those "You Can't Stop Me" grooves that more often than not results in a loooooong evening for the Celtics' opponent.
Unfortunately, after he buried his second three-pointer with 4:44 left, putting Boston ahead 23-12, he picked up his second foul of the frame and retreated to the bench. But Pierce had already made his statement that even though the Magic were heavily favored heading into last night's game on the heels of their failed attempt at a comeback in Game 1, he wasn't going to sit idly by and allow what was "supposed to happen" actually unfold. Orlando led by a mere point after the first quarter. Heading into the game, it was the opinion of many that the Magic would come out with an assertive energy that was absent for the vast majority of Game 1, and maybe they meant to, but before they could even accelerate off the line, Pierce was cruising 200 meters up the track in fifth gear.
When Pierce checked out with 3:40 left with his second foul, the Celtics led 23-15. The Magic outscored Boston 13-4 the rest of the way. But last night, that was acceptable for the Celtics, given what was "supposed to happen" in the first quarter. And unfortunately for the Magic, Pierce was just getting going.
Mickael Pietrus did a sufficient job guarding Paul Pierce in last year's postseason, but so far, in this one, he might as well be J.J. Redick. After calmly knocking down a technical free throw, Pierce rose up over Pietrus on the right wing and buried a 15-footer over him, giving Boston a 37-33 lead. It was the classic Pierce play: faking towards the rim with his dribble the first time, getting Pietrus to rock back on his heels, before going at him a second time with basically the same move, only the second time around, as soon as Pierce planted his front foot forward and Pietrus motioned backwards, he launched off that foot like it was a trampoline, took flight backwards, flicked the wrist, and drained the shot. It's one of those shots, especially when you see it in slow motion on the replay, where your mouth either hangs open for an extra second, you shake your head in wonderment, or you utter something like: "Wow." Next time (because you know there will be a next time), keep an eye on Pierce's footwork, and how he maintains perfect control and balance, despite the various ball fakes and hesitation dribbles that almost always cause a defender to reel back on his heels in fear of an aggressive drive into the paint.
Then of course came Dwight Howard's flagrant foul. With 4:20 to play in the half, Pierce skirted by Pietrus on the right wing, headed for the hoop, saw Howard rotating over to try and block the shot, gave the pair one heck of an upfake, which forced Howard into the air and Pietrus to yank at Pierce's jersey from behind. Pierce went up just as Howard was coming back down. If you watch the replay, it was a flagrant foul because of Howard's right arm, which came thundering down like a sledgehammer into the left side of Pierce's forehead, forcing him back down, followed by some unnecessary continuation, as he raked his hand across Pierce's face and ripped him down to the floor. Head band now askew, Pierce covered his face with his hands for a moment, before attempting to get up and go after Howard (his teammates held him back. I'm not sure exactly what Pierce would have done had he actually gotten to Howard...).
Everyone will probably remember the foul, as it was a pretty vicious hit coming from someone Howard's size, but they should also remember Pierce's response to it. He hit one of two free throws, and took advantage of the Celtics' extra possession by going right at Pietrus six seconds into the shot clock, drew another foul and hit one of two free throws again. I sure hope the Magic didn't think Pierce would actually be intimidated by Howard's hit, or hesitate attacking the rim from that point on. If they did, they need new scouts. Pierce scored 10 points in the second quarter, with seven of them coming after the flagrant foul on Howard.
Pierce's next shot at the rim was just as aggressive, as he drove left on Pietrus towards the middle of the paint, before spinning right and putting the ball off the glass. Howard rotated over and batted it away, but it was clearly goal tending, and Pierce was credited for two more. He polished off his shiny first half with a contested three-pointer off a feed from Kevin Garnett out of the paint. Pierce finished the first half with 22 points, and his team led at the break, 53-51.
Pierce finished his night with 28 points, leading some to think the Magic actually contained him in the second half, when in reality, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett took the burden of scoring all the points off of his shoulders. Pierce did come through with a highlight worthy sequence against Vince Carter late in the third period, however.
With 2:36 left in the third, Pierce had the ball on the right wing, closely guarded by Carter. Pierce brought the ball down and looked to bring his hands into Carter's outstretched one, hoping to draw the foul like he does so often. He tried the move, didn't hear a whistle, managed to keep both feet on the ground to avoid a traveling call, went to drive right, lost control of the ball towards the baseline, corralled it, upfaked again which drew Carter into the air, and leaped into Vince, resulting in an obvious foul. He sank both free throws, appropriately capping off a series that made Carter look absolutely helpless on the defensive end. Pierce added a driving, spinning fallaway at the free throw line for good measure, before assisting on two buckets by Glen Davis and Rajon Rondo to end the quarter. The Celtics led, 78-70 heading into the fourth.
Pierce scored just two points in the fourth quarter, but they were arguably his two most important of the entire game. With 34.7 seconds left, and the Celtics leading, 93-92, he got Redick in a switch, got him in the air, and drew the foul, much to the chagrin of Redick and the entire Magic bench. Pierce calmly took his time, sank the first free throw, then the second, before jogging back to the huddle after the Magic called timeout, pumping his fists ever so slightly, his expression stone cold.
To me, those fists pumps were just further evidence of just how much Pierce wants to win everything this season. Now, I know Kevin Garnett wants to win, and I know Ray Allen wants to win, along with Rondo and Doc Rivers, (heck I'm starting to believe even Rasheed Wallace wants to win at this point) but no one's personifying it quite like Pierce is. Beyond the impressive stats so far this series (41.0 minutes, 25 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 58 percent shooting, 50 percent from three, 81 percent (21 attempts) from the free throw line), his demeanor on the court is so business-like, so cutthroat, and it has so far trumped that of any player on Orlando's roster. He maintained after the Celtics ousted the Cavaliers that the goal was always a championship (which it was), but entering this series with that title a mere eight wins away, it rang true to Pierce just how close his team is again, and he's poised to do everything in his power to see that his team reaches that goal.
Go back and watch Vince Carter miss those two free throws (which came via Pierce's sixth and final foul). After the first miss Pierce, sitting down, pumps the fists again and gets to his feet, and as Carter shoots the second one you can see Pierce on the sideline, contorting his body as if him bending sideways will throw the ball off its target, like when someone plays a racing video game and leans to the left and right when they take turns like it will help steer the car. Carter bricked it, and as soon as Glen Davis secures the rebound, Pierce pumps both fists again in elation and turns back towards the bench and the crowd. He just wants to win so bad.
And if you still doubt that, you clearly didn't see his postgame interview with Doris Burke. When asked about a possible letdown, up 2-0, heading back to Boston, Pierce replied:
"Our fans aren't gonna let us relax." (Then he stared right into the camera.) "Ya'll not gonna let us relax." (Back to Doris) "We're gonna try and close this out in two games." (Back to the camera) "Ya'll hear me? We coming home to close it out." He then gives the camera a wink for effect. See for yourself: