Paul Pierce, Celtics show some fight
BOSTON -- With the Boston Celtics nursing a near 30-point advantage late in the fourth quarter and a message on the JumboTron advertising that Gino, Boston's celebratory American Bandstand dancer, was warming up backstage, Paul Pierce and Glen Davis playfully sparred in front of the bench during a timeout.
It was an appropriate visual considering that, just a couple of hours earlier, Pierce likened the final 23 games of the regular season to a boxing match, stressing that the Celtics needed to get their training in before the main event -- the postseason.
On a night in which Pierce produced one of his finest outings of the past two injury-riddled months, his team followed suit as the Celtics stomped the Charlotte Bobcats 104-80 Wednesday night at TD Garden.
Pierce registered a game-high 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting (4-of-6 3-pointers) with 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and a block over 26 minutes.
"You don't just see teams turn it on once the playoffs start, the process is very important," Pierce said in a rare pregame confab with the media. "It's like when you go to a boxing match. You don't just step out there and fight. You have to build up and practice by sparring. That's what the regular season is, you have to get ready."
For much of the past two months, Boston has looked like a fighter content to sit on the couch, munch on potato chips and try his luck in the ring. Sure, they'd show up for sparring sessions, sometimes they'd even show shades of a former champion.
Then on Saturday, they got knocked out by a lightweight named New Jersey in what was supposed to be a breezy exhibition.
If the Celtics were bored by the process of the regular season, as his teammates suggested (and his coach didn't deny), Pierce, who was forced to watch Saturday's head-shaking loss to the Nets from the sideline while nursing a right thumb sprain, implored his team to wait no longer before beginning its postseason conditioning.
Boston still looked sleepy stumbling through a win in Detroit on Tuesday night, but returned home Wednesday with renewed vigor, drubbing the Bobcats for the third time this season, a veritable TKO for a Charlotte team fighting for its playoff life in the Eastern Conference.
Maybe, just maybe, the training process has finally begun for Boston.
"We haven't had a game like this in -- it's been a while," Pierce admitted after the game. "I thought this was a good win. This is how we should come out in each and every game, at home especially."
Years in the ring have left Pierce a little worse for wear this season. He's endured a trio of minor -- yet lingering -- injuries including a right knee infection that needed to be drained surgically twice in late December, a sprained left mid-foot suffered in early February, then the sprained thumb endured late last month.
The injuries forced Pierce to miss a total of 10 games and he admitted Wednesday it's made it difficult for him -- and his likewise injury-riddled teammates -- to get into a rhythm this season.
"It's been frustrating," said Pierce. "You never want to sit out any games, but it's been that kind of a season. It's been nothing really major, other than the surgeries, and those were minor compared to the surgeries that other guys have been through. Then I came back and sprained my foot and sprained my thumb. It's been an up-and-down season for me as far as injuries.
"You get into a good, comfortable groove, then you sit out a couple of weeks. Then you get into a groove and you sit out a couple of weeks. It's like going to the race, then starting and stopping, starting and stopping. How do you expect to win when you do that? You have to get into a comfortable pace, especially in a long-distance race."
Celtics guard Tony Allen might have summed up Pierce's big night better than anyone when he noted, "We need him. He's our leader. We follow our leader."
Indeed, what good is a ship without its captain? After Pierce labored through a poor outing in Detroit, his first game back after a three-game absence, Celtics coach Doc Rivers tried to get Pierce going again on Wednesday.
"Paul, even coming off injury, doesn't like having two [bad nights] in a row," said Rivers. "And, it's funny, [Tuesday] night, I jokingly said, 'Well, he'll be better tomorrow.' But he almost had no choice, the way he struggled. But you knew he would be.
"I thought the end of the third [quarter] for him was really important. We ran a lot of iso stuff for him, which we haven't done a lot, and he came up pretty big for us. I thought that was good to get his rhythm. We were up by 20 at that point, but it was really important to try to keep getting his rhythm going."
Over the final part of the third quarter, Pierce made a pair of 3-pointers, a mid-range jumper, a layup and got to the charity stripe while scoring 13 of his points on 4-of-6 shooting. In a quarter that Boston had been downright woeful in this season, Pierce helped put the Celtics on top, 82-61, at the end of three.
Pierce and the rest of Boston's starters enjoyed the rest of the game from the bench, allowing plenty of time to work on those boxing moves, or yuck it up to Gino and the other American Bandstand dancers, who made their first appearance since December.
Pierce knows that a heavyweight bout is not won with one training session. The Celtics must take the positives from Wednesday's win and build on them over the final 22 games of the regular season.
"It's a start," admitted Pierce. But he knows it's all about how you finish.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.