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Memo to Celts Fans: It Ain't 2002 Anymore

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Like most Celtics fans  I was rather upset when Paul Pierce bricked two free throws with the Celts up one with a shade more than two minutes to play in Dallas last night.

I was peeved as a fan beyond all else, as that is what always comes first and foremost with regard to pro basketball. 

But somehow, I couldn't keep the writer's voice in my head from piping in its two cents as well: "There goes that column you wanted to write..."

And for a for second, I agreed with the voice.

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This was going to be a column on the nostalgia I experienced last night.

Because it seemed that Paul Pierce was making a concerted effort to bring us all back to 2002, the year in which he blossomed into a star and began to become a household name.

It happened quietly at first, completely out of nowhere.  Paul Pierce morphed.  While the rest of the Celtics didn't seem ready to get the job done offensively, the Paul Pierce of old came out.  The Paul Pierce who was once the league's premier fourth quarter player.  The Paul Pierce who once led the Association in free throws made and attempted, particularly in the fourth quarter.  

The Paul Pierce we saw lead so many improbable comebacks on those 2001-02 and 2002-03 teams that made playoff runs.  The one who chipped and chipped away, who often did his work the ugly, bruising way when necessary.

The Paul Pierce who knew that despite the presence of secondary star Antoine Walker, his job was to carry his team on his back every night, especially when it mattered. 

Yep, that Paul Pierce looked to be in the building.

It seemed to be that Paul Pierce who obliterated the Mavs' biggest lead of the game by going on a personal 7-0 run of his own, all at the foul line.  It seemed to be that Paul Pierce who was going at defenders with reckless abandon and using his body to his advantage.  It seemed to be the fearless Paul Pierce, who believed he could best any obstacle and get said obstacle called for a few fouls to boot.

The results show the return of that Paul:  He hit his first seven foul shots of the quarter, and he only took one-field goal attempt in the final period thanks to the increasing nature of his journeys to foul line.   With 22 points, 13 boards and an astounding no turnovers for Pierce, this game had all the familial signs of a takeover.

In some ways, those takeovers are to be missed.  They were the stuff of legend: Pierce's 20-plus point quarters in games 1 and 4 against Indiana in 2003.  Game 5 against Philadelphia in 2002.  The 46-point second half in New Jersey in December 2001.  For a fan base that hasn't seen a champion in more than two decades, Pierce's moments were as glorious as basketball got for a while.

Seeing Pierce do what Pierce does best -- grit his way to the foul line and will his way to points -- temporarily made me long for the days when it seemed to be Pierce who had to make that sort of thing happen every night.  While Pierce's 2002 team only got so far as the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the most enjoyable part of a two-decade stretch with little to write home about.  There was something magically endearing about the 2002 team, that group of misfits and role players built around a budding star and his chucking sidekick that was somehow able to push itself to 49 wins and within two more victories of an NBA Finals berth.

For a time, it looked like we were going to get a small taste of that last night. It looked like it was Paul's night, and only Paul's night, that once more, this team would win or lose thanks to The Truth's efforts.  They would win, and what a wonderful feeling it would be to write that "Retro Paul Comes Alive" piece for the next morning.

Then The Truth threw a monkey wrench into the plan by doing something he very rarely does: missing not one but two foul shots with the game in the balance.  With the Celts leading 87-86 and 2:06 to play, PP clanked both shots, and the Mavs came right back down the floor and got two foul shots from Dirk Nowitzki to take an 88-87 lead.

The fear in us fans had returned.  The excitedly joyous feelings about writing that Retro Paul column had suddenly ceased to exist.

But as it turned out, the evening couldn't have worked any better for the team and for this writer.

Because this column doesn't need to be about Retro Paul getting the jonb all by himself.  Because that isn't how he has to get jobs done anymore. 

Because in those years past, the team couldn't win a game after those two missed foul shots from Pierce.  That would be because they needed him to do all the heavy lifting come crunch time, and if he wasn't up to the task on a particular night, the most likely truth would be that no one would be (although Antoine Walker provided occasional exceptions to that rule).

But that's just the point.  This isn't 2002 anymore.    This is 2008.  This is a Celtics team that has Paul Pierce as one of its leaders, but not the Guy Who Has to Do It All By Himself Every Night.  So when he missed his two free throws, his teammates were right there to pick up the slack. Ray Allen hit a three of gargantuan proportion that put the C's ahead by two.  Kevin Garnett led the efforts for two crucial defensive stops in the final minute.  KG and James Posey had ice in their veins as they shot free throws to finish it.

For the 55th time this season, this team won together.  The boys rode their hot-handed horse throughout the fourth quarter, but when he went cold, they gave him all the help he needed to seal the deal.  Just like they have been doing all season, though the possessor of the hot hand changes every night.

Paul Pierce can still take over.  But on the nights when he isn't able to drop the hammer on the opponent all by his lonesome, he won't have to do so.  These days, he has no shortage of teammates who can step up and do that for him.

We got a glimmer of Retro Paul last night.  But we got an eyeful of a team of the highest caliber at the end in Dallas.

Frankly, that's a far more enjoyable message to get to send than any one about Retro Paul on his own. 

And come June, that could make all the difference.