- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- The night couldn't have started much worse for Paul Pierce.
The Boston Celtics' captain picked up a foul nine seconds into the game and his second shortly thereafter, putting him on the bench less than two minutes into Wednesday's game at TD Garden against the New York Knicks.
When Pierce checked back into the game early in the second quarter, he missed a technical free throw, committed a turnover on a bad pass, watched former Celtics bench-warmer J.R. Giddens drive on him for a layup, and was whistled for a defensive three-seconds violation.
Few would have blamed Pierce if, for the second straight game, he retreated to the locker room before intermission -- this time for the night. It seemed everything he did kept him from falling into the rhythm coach Doc Rivers has been desperately seeking from him this month.
But, in what might have been the most encouraging sign about Pierce's potential return to form this season, he shook off all the early maladies by pouring in 11 of his 13 first-half points over the final six minutes of that second quarter, then erupted for 16 more points in the third period as the Celtics rolled to a 109-97 triumph over New York.
"I think it's his second, maybe third game in a row where early fouls have become a problem," said Rivers. "And most players struggle on those nights, when you pick up those fouls like that. He came back in like he hadn't missed a beat.
"You could see it even in the second half -- he was forcing it, probably a little more than we wanted, but it was good for him. And the recognition of the players -- there was a play right before they came out [of the game] where we should've thrown it to [Kendrick Perkins], and Perk said, 'No, I told Paul to just keep being aggressive, we've got to get him back aggressive.' So it's great when everybody recognizes that."
Pierce had 29 points (11-of-17 shooting) plus six rebounds and a steal. He spent the fourth quarter on the bench, but fortunately for Boston, it was the result of his play, not any additional foul trouble.
"I thought Paul did a good job of just staying in there with two quick fouls," said Kevin Garnett. "When you get fouls that early, one of two things can happen: You can come out like you did and continue to be aggressive, or you can take a step back. I just thought these last couple games, he's been aggressive. In order for us to win big like we've been winning, he's going to have to continue to do that."
Perkins might have summed it up even simpler: "I thought he was mad because he picked up two early fouls, then he came back with a chip on his shoulder and played great. We need that out of everybody."
But it's clear that the Celtics need it most out of Pierce and Garnett. The stats tell the story. When Boston started the season blistering hot at 23-5, either Pierce or Garnett led the team in scoring in 15 of those wins.
With both Pierce and Garnett struggling to find their rhythm since returning from in-season injuries, Rivers suggested last week that he'd sit both players if that's what they needed to re-energize for the postseason.
The mere suggestion -- which Garnett openly admitted he wanted no part of -- seemed enough to jostle the pair into playing better. Since Rivers' proclamation after an awful loss to the Grizzlies, Pierce has averaged 20.5 points per game (three points above his season average), while Garnett has averaged 15.3 points (a point higher than his mark for the season).
Rivers hesitated to get too excited about the duo Wednesday after they combined to score nearly half of Boston's points (51 on 20-of-28 shooting), but he knows it's a good sign for the success of his team if this trend continues.
"I won't overstate it because it's really one game," said Rivers, "and I still know that they're not there yet. But they're getting closer. And they're going to have their ups and downs. They're going to have a couple games where I'm going to have to answer to you guys [asking], 'Are they done? Can they play any more?' And then we're going to have nights like this, too. I'm starting to hope that we have more of these and more of these. That's how our whole team has to think. We've just got to keep building."
Pierce hasn't spoken to the media since the team's win over Indiana last week. Since Sunday's loss in Cleveland, he appears to be letting his play do the talking. Maybe it's the captain leading by example. He sparked the Celtics early in a breezy win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday, then spent much of the game on the bench with foul trouble.
For his part, Garnett was asked to assess his performance and essentially dismissed it, noting the only thing that mattered was a win.
"I could care less," Garnett said of 9-of-11 shooting. "I'm just glad we got a big win and the starters got a chance to sit in the fourth. For the most part, I thought I had a lot of energy. I ran the floor as good as I've been doing this year and I have to continue to. But other than that, we got the win. I could care less about 9-for-11, 0-for-4, whatever. It's the W in the win column that I care about."
But it's pretty clear the Celtics won't be registering many W's, particularly not in the postseason, unless Garnett and Pierce continue to play at this level.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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