A Daily Babble Production
As soon as the words were out of Tommy Heinsohn's mouth, that Saturday seven years ago came to mind.
At some relatively early point during Paul Pierce's abominable 3-for-13 shooting performance over the first three quarters of last night's Raptors-Celtics game, the Celtics' legendary player, coach and broadcaster said, "I'll tell you, he's going to score 40 next time."
It was meant as a compliment to the type of player Pierce is, that he would have the resilience to fight off a bad night against Toronto and come back with a monster performance in the ensuing game. Tommy followed the comment up with an enjoyable anecdote about something similar from his own playing days.
But the wheels of time were already spinning back in my mind by that point. Because it seemed just a bit early to be thinking about Paul Pierce's next game, and there may be no better reminder of that than Paul's performance on December 1, 2001, a chilly Saturday afternoon in East Rutherford. He only scored two points in the first half that day. It's too bad he couldn't find a way to muster just one more basket in that atrocious half seeing as he wound up finishing two points short of 50 for the day, thanks to a 46-point effort in the second half and overtime of a 105-98 comeback victory for the green.
Monday night's performance wasn't quite at that level, but it was no doubt reminiscent of that day in 2001, and it was the latest in a career-long pattern of sterling late-game efforts from the man Eddie Palladino refers to as the Captain aaaaaaaaand the Truth.
Watching Pierce play in the fourth quarter last night also reminded me of another more recent event in the pro hoops world: The final seconds of Thursday night's thriller in Portland, only on a larger scale. We babbled the next day about how Yao Ming and Brandon Roy put on a confidence clinic of sorts that night, stepping up to hit shots at the biggest of moments (Roy had five points in the game's final two seconds sandwiched around a Yao three-point play) despite playing poorly throughout the earlier portion of the evening.
Now, imagine if Brandon Roy had another quarter left in that Houston-Portland game to completely dominate after he hit those two shots to get himself going. That's what Paul Pierce did last night.
It seemed he couldn't do anything right offensively through most of the first three quarters. At first, it was the typical issue of settling for too many outside jumpers that occasionally plagues Pierce. But even when he started doing what looked like the right things, such as attacking the rim, he couldn't get the ball to stay down. He uncharacteristically missed two lay-ins despite making effective moves to get to the bucket. The night had all the signs of not being his.
Suddenly time started to draw thin, and the forward from Kansas became a different player. Four free throw attempts (three makes) to start the quarter represented a good sign because it meant he was still getting inside, and that is usually the best way to kickstart the Celtics' offense. But it was two plays shortly after those trips to the line that really should have sent off the warning signals to the Raptors.
First, came the and-one. PP spun into the middle of the lane, took a hit from a defender and managed to bank the ball in anyway. Count the bucket plus a foul. A play later, he glided right through the lane once more, forcing a collapse of the Toronto defense. This led to a beautiful pass to Leon Powe for an emphatic dunk to cut the Raps' lead at the time to three.
From there, he was off to the races. You know the story by now. The man could suddenly do no wrong. He hit from everywhere, banging consecutive threes to keep Toronto from pulling away in the middle of the fourth, later putting the exclamation point on the Celts' comeback with a beautiful up-and-under reverse lay-up to stretch the lead to six in the final minute. And, of course, his bread and butter came on the mid-range pull-up: That stutter-step, cross-over, step-back (or any combination of the three) jumper from the elbows extended that we've seen so many times from Paul in crucial spots returned with a vengeance. He hit from 16 feet to slice the Raps' lead to one midway through the quarter. The shot that put the green ahead to stay was a spin-off move from just inside the right elbow that bounced in and out and back in. The next one was pure from a step further away from the bucket.
You know the numbers by now, but we couldn't possibly complete this story without rehashing them one more time: A late fourth-quarter spurt by the Raptors allowed them to tie the fourth quarter scoring. Between them and Paul Pierce. At 22 points apiece. Of course, the Raptors scored their 22 on 8-of-18 shooting from the field, while Pierce went 7-for-9 in the fourth, and he got 13 more points worth of help from his teammates.
It all comes back to those two plays early in the fourth. It was on that and-one and the dish to Leon that you could see the change happen. This wasn't the struggling star who was down on himself for his second consecutive poor shooting night. This was the Truth. All at once, the body language completely changed. He started reacting to every big play in that special Paul Pierce way, clenched fists pumping down by his waist, head titled as he screamed up at the sky. His head started nodding. His body began to move with that ease and smoothness that seems like an unfair advantage for a guy who already has the strength that comes with a 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame. Just as was the case with Yao and Roy last week, it was as if a switch went on that allowed the man to spontaneously cleanse himself of all the garbage that had gone on earlier in the evening as well as the frustration that came with it.
And it all added up to mean that the Raptors were toast.
Thanks for giving us yet another special night to remember, Paul.
* * *
A few quick residual thoughts from Monday night's contest:
- Credit Doc and the coaching staff for drawing up just the right set coming out of the timeout with three minutes and change to play in the fourth, and credit the players for executing it to a tee. Trailing by three, the C's had Rajon Rondo wait at the top while they ran Ray Allen off of a couple of screens from the left wing on through underneath the basket to the right wing on the perimeter. Rondo's delivery came at just the right time, and Ray's catch-and-shoot motion was perfectly fluid with zero hesitation. Bang. Tie game.
- Perk, Part I: I really could have done without Kendrick Perkins throughout much of the first half. He got his head handed to him defensively by Jermaine O'Neal, who scored 19 points in the half, and then he couldn't keep himself from almost sparking an altercation with JO late in the second quarter. I realize that there may be something to be said for lighting a fire under a team or getting in the other guy's head, but there is also something that rubs me the wrong way about having one's rear end kicked but continuing to yap away the entire time.
- Perk, Part II: That said, I'm occasionally unduly hard on Perk (largely thanks to The Guru's long-held influence on this), and I would be remiss to criticize his first half play without pointing out that not only did the Celts hold JO to four second-half points (and Perk was part of that), but that Perk made as big a defensive play as anyone in the game with the contest on the line. Tied at 84 with less than two minutes remaining, the big man stuck tight to O'Neal all the way as he dribbled with his back to the basket on the right wing. When JO spun and rose up to take his turnaround jumper, the beast rose with him and blocked the shot. Pierce hit the in-and-out-and-in jumper at the other end, and the Celts never looked back. Huh-yuge play, KP43.
- Great to see Eddie House shooting the ball effectively again (3-for-5 this time around), and his three-pointer to put the Celts ahead for the first time in the fourth was a beauty.
- Kevin Garnett's full-court pressure and antics directed toward Jose Calderon were nothing short of awesome.
- Jason Kapono deserves plenty of credit for Toronto. He scored 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting (2-of-3 from deep) and hit several tough, contested jumpers, including a couple on the run. That he found time to dole out six assists is impressive, too. Definitely thought, "Wow, Jason Kapono is killing us" more often than I expected to last night.
- I did a lot of complaining about the foul shooting during the first couple of games, but 24-of-27 is more like it. Well done, fellas.
- And oh by the way, for as great as The Truth was down the stretch, it's always pretty cool when KG goes for a legitimately quiet 21 points and 10 boards on a neatly effective 10-of-19 from the field. Great work, Ticket.
Who knew a win in November could feel both so draining and rewarding to watch?
Long live the Captain aaaaaaaaand the Truth.