Pierce's fire has been lit
Defensive move by Magic seems to have stoked Celtics forward
After all, Paul Pierce's offensive struggles against James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals earlier this month might ultimately be the best thing that happened to Boston all season.
Because of Pierce's low scoring totals against Cleveland, the Orlando Magic opened the conference finals by matching defensively indifferent Vince Carter with Pierce instead of going with Matt Barnes, the better defender and a more natural selection based on positions.
The Barnes-Carter flip-flop seemed to light a fire under the prideful Pierce, who suggested throughout Boston's six-game triumph over Cleveland that his focus was on limiting James in the defensive end. That surely took some of his attention away from offense, but Pierce has taken any lingering frustration out on the Magic.
Pierce appeared rejuvenated Thursday. He's been sharp from the perimeter, and he's getting to the free throw line with renewed regularity.
Pierce is overflowing with confidence and it's coming through not only in his play, but also in his postgame interviews. And while Celtics coach Doc Rivers isn't thrilled with the brash opinions Pierce spouted on national TV, Rivers can't argue with Pierce's production on the floor.
That production might ultimately be the reason the Magic lose this series.
"I'm taking my time, picking my spots," Pierce said at Boston's practice Thursday at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint. "I'm getting to the midrange because it's difficult to finish in the half court when they have Dwight [Howard] there under the basket blocking shots. I'm trying to get to my spot in the midrange game, the 3-point game is going. I'm using the screens, and guys are doing a good job of getting me open."
Now Barnes is asking to guard Pierce. It's probably two games too late.
"I'd love to guard Pierce," Barnes told the Orlando Sentinel. "I got the chance to guard him a little bit the last game and felt that I did a pretty good job. But he's really rolling right now. So we need to slow him down somehow."
Good luck. The Celtics are a runaway train, and Pierce is the conductor.
After averaging 13.5 points on 34.5 percent shooting against the Cavs, Pierce's stats have ballooned to 25 points per game on 58.3 percent shooting.
What's more, he has made five of 10 3-pointers this series after landing only eight of 26 trifectas (30.8 percent) in the previous round. And Pierce has gotten to the free throw line 21 times in two games against Orlando after attempting a mere 19 free throws in six games against the Cavaliers.
Boston hasn't had the same leading scorer in back-to-back games throughout its playoff journey, a stretch of 13 games. But that might be in jeopardy if Pierce goes off again in Game 3 after pouring in a team-high 28 points in Game 2.
He isn't just dominating offensively; he's playing with a confidence not spotted in these parts very often this season. After Tuesday's triumph, he looked into the ESPN cameras and brazenly said, "We're coming home to close it out."
Couple that with a tweet alluding to a sweep -- which Pierce contends he didn't send, even though it was posted to his official Twitter page -- and the Magic seem to have unleashed a monster.
"He's the most efficient player in the series right now, at both ends" said Rajon Rondo. "He's got a good rhythm going."
The Celtics spent the better part of the final month of the regular season trying to find that rhythm. Deterred by injuries that marred his entire campaign, Pierce never seemed to lock in.
After leading the team in scoring in 10 of its first 15 games this season, Pierce was diagnosed with a right knee infection in late December and underwent two draining procedures around Christmas while sitting out five games.
A month after returning, he suffered a left midfoot injury in a collision with Washington's Caron Butler. Pierce missed two games, but came back in time to win the 3-point shootout at this year's All-Star Game.
Despite being tickled by the 3-point honor, Pierce later admitted he might have come back too soon. Not only did he endure a sprained right thumb in late February, he suggested Thursday that other injuries cropped up along the way as well.
"The things I went through were very difficult, not knowing if my body would make it to the end of the season," Pierce said. "The knee, the foot, the hand -- and there were a couple of injuries that didn't even get mentioned to you guys because so many other things were going on -- I didn't think I'd make it through the season. Truthfully, I'm glad I was able to work through it, get back to 100 percent and get things going the way they're going now."
In the end, the Magic might only have themselves to blame for Pierce's resurgence. Well, maybe James too.
"That's the difference between LeBron and everyone else in the league," Pierce said. "He's a two-time MVP, he's been on the all-defense team. He could pretty much cover the whole scouting report. That wears on you, mentally and physically, when preparing for him, more so than this series. [The Magic have] a number of guys that can kill you, but they don't have a two-time MVP."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: CELTICS-MAGIC
GAME 6: CELTICS 96, MAGIC 84
GAME 5: MAGIC 113, CELTICS 92
GAME 4: MAGIC 96, CELTICS 92
GAME 3: CELTICS 94, MAGIC 71
GAME 2: CELTICS 95, MAGIC 92
GAME 1: CELTICS 92, MAGIC 88
- Playoffs? Playoffs??
- The C's didn't look ready for the postseason in getting crushed by the Cavs.