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BOSTON – The Truth was finally set free. After what may have been his final game in the TD Garden, Paul Pierce walked off the court with his hand held high.
But it was Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner who stole the show, leading a memorable comeback to grind to an overtime win 139-134. Thomas scored 36 points with 11 assists while Turner scored 7 of his 14 points in the overtime run that gave the Celtics the lead.
It was one of the first true playoff tests for a Celtics team that has been waiting for an opponent to push its offensive capability to the breaking point.
"I just thought they got to every loose ball," Doc Rivers said. "They’re so athletic and I just thought that their athleticism won out at the end of the day."
But the Celtics’ fight got only stronger in the closing minutes, as Isaiah Thomas yet again scored incredible buckets to narrow the gap in crunch time. This was partnered with incredible hustle plays from Marcus Smart, who nearly gave the Celtics three possessions in a row when he was erroneously called for a loose ball foul on JJ Redick.
"I’ve never seen a little guy—other than Spudd [Webb] – that makes his living in the paint," Doc said of Thomas. "You very rarely see one that gets in the paint and makes shots. And he does it consistently."
After forcing a Chris Paul missed three with 24 seconds left, Jae Crowder was hit with a controversial foul for holding DeAndre Jordan’s arm on a box out. Jordan naturally proceeded to miss both free throws.
Isaiah Thomas got the switch on the other end for a one-on-one with Jordan. Thomas drove left, pushed off of Jordan at the block, stepped back and hit a rainbow fadeaway. It was the stuff of legend that earned Pierce a spot in the rafters.
With the game tied at 122 and 5.6 seconds left, Doc Rivers was tasked with reminding everyone in Boston that he too can be an ATO maestro. But Chris Paul’s dazzling crossover display couldn’t get him enough separation on a fadeaway over Evan Turner and the Celtics somehow forced overtime. Paul was clearly fatigued in the latest stages of the game.
"But after a while, you’re just like, ‘Man, win this game,’" Paul said after playing 48 minutes. "There ain’t no point playing all these minutes if you don’t win. So, it is what it is."
But the Clippers went on a 8-2 run in the first 1:27 of the OT as Jae Crowder joined Marcus Smart at the end of the bench with his sixth foul.
"Just keep fighting, that’s what this team is about," Isaiah Thomas said when asked about persevering despite losing Smart, Crowder and Olynyk. "Never give up. Just continue to fight, no matter what the circumstances are. At a point in time in that game, our backs were against the wall, it seemed like the game was over, but we just kept at it. We made plays down the stretch and came out with a win."
Then Avery Bradley hit an open three. Then Jared Sullinger hit a three. As the Clippers kept getting to the line and leaving points on the board, the Celtics kept chipping away.
Before they knew it, the Celtics had the ball tied 132-132 and a chance to take their first lead. Evan Turner drew a three-point play put the Celtics up 135-132, their first lead since it was 107-106 with 8:11 left in the fourth quarter.
Turner scored 7 points in a row in overtime after both Smart and Crowder fouled out. Thomas got them there, but it was Turner who closed it out.
"He made huge plays in overtime," Stevens said of Turner. "We felt like we could post him a little bit. We felt like we could isolate him a little bit. They were switching different guys on to him. Sometimes we weren’t calling timeouts because of those matchuips that we thought were good for him and he made great plays late."
Turner, never one to shy away from a chance to toot his own horn, reveled in the moment of closing out the first stanza of the season with an absolute thunderstrike.
"I’m definitely comfortable and confident, and I’m definitely aggressive in those moments. But I take great pride in performing down the stretch."
Even with a slew of foul calls that will fill a lengthy L2M report from the NBA offices Thursday, the Celtics showed the mental fortitude and clutch playmaking they have been searching to establish against an elite opponent. Although the Clippers were missing Blake Griffin, they certainly resembled a physically dominating western conference top dog that had the skill and shooting to beat any team in the league (except the Warriors of course).
"They just played so hard," Doc said. "I thought they deserved to win. For two great defensive teams, I don’t know what happened on the night before All-Star Break. I think our defenses went onbreak. Both of ours, before."
With the Celtics snatching a key win out of Doc’s grasp heading into the All-Star break, they sent out a statement to the league, as well as within their own locker room. They may have a different roster next time they take the court, but they have proven they do not need a trade to compete with the best teams in the NBA.
DOC MOVED TO TEARS OVER INGRID WILLIAMS’ TRAGIC DEATH
As Doc Rivers emerged from the away coaches locker room, he passed by his old Celtics locker room on his left. While he almost always makes some sort of gesture or joke as he waltzes through the hallway, this time his eyes were lost in the crowd awaiting him.
For hours, most of the NBA world had been shocked by the tragic accident that took the life of Ingrid Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife. But it had been just a few moments since Doc found out he had lost a dear friend. As Doc entered the center of the media scrum, his typically glazed eyes had a distressed and helpless look as they welled up.
"Just now." Doc responded when asked when he found out. "You can just talk about basketball if you want to. I don’t want to talk about that."
Doc proceeded to answer basketball questions and eventually got back into the rhythm of his jovial self. But after regaining his composure, he ended the press conference with an unprompted statement.
"Monty Williams and his wife Ingrid - I've known them since I was married. So I don't know if - there's no words, there really isn't. I am heartbroken. I'm sick to death. once again it puts this stuff we do in perspective. This is awful.
"Obviously our love and support and all that, but sometimes that doesn't seem fair. There's no better human being in the world than Monty and Ingrid and for this to happen, sometimes you question everything and this is one of those times for me at least."
It will be a dark day for the NBA as the All-Star Break begins. For Rivers and many others close to the Williams family, decompression will sadly be a luxury.