- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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There it was, the pre-recorded plea for all to see and hear. Paul Pierce, on the Jumbotron, reminding Celtics fans that it was, indeed, the playoffs, and to respond accordingly.
Only problem: Pierce and the Celtics were playing like it was Game 83 of the uninspiring regular season they had just supposedly ended. They were losing. They looked detached. Their coach even told his players they looked as though they had quit.
It was midway through the third quarter and Miami was starting to pull away in Game 1 of the Celtics-Heat playoff series. Dwyane Wade was going into full Mariano Rivera mode a bit earlier than usual, scoring 10 points in a 15-2 run. The Celtics, meanwhile, were doing all the same, stupid things they had done so often in Games 1-82: too many turnovers, too many missed easy opportunities, surrendering the boards. When Wade went through the lane and casually tossed in a 10-foot floater, the Heat led 61-47 with 7:03 left in the game.
Pierce then heeded his own entreaty, snapping out of a funk and, in the process, dope-slapping the Celtics back into the here and now. The defense kicked in, which was a welcome sight to Celtics fans. So, too, was the sight of No. 34 at the other end of the floor. He had a team-high 16 points and the Celtics overcame their regular-season ways to take an important, if inelegant, 85-76 victory.
"We pride ourselves on our defense,'' Pierce said. "But at the end of the day, you do have to put the ball in the bucket."
Pierce had had trouble doing that for the first 30-plus minutes. He had just one basket, a short bank shot, although he was getting good looks and moving well. When he coaxed in a fallaway jumper from the baseline with 4:10 left in the third period, it marked his first basket that could be classified as an outside shot. He would soon follow with a three-pointer, a 20-footer, and then add two free throws as the Celtics closed the quarter with a 17-5 run to pull to within two points. Pierce had 11 points in the period.
"We needed to get more stops, but that [Pierce's scoring] was huge,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We needed scoring and Paul led the way."
Pierce said, "I just wanted to be a little more aggressive. That's what I tried to do. We were kind of lifeless when we got down by 10 [actually 14] and I just wanted to be more aggressive on the offensive end, get into the paint, getting to the line, taking the shots down there. That was about it. Once I started doing that, the defense kicked in."
That seven-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter was really where the game turned. The Celtics continued the pressure in the fourth quarter, allowing only 10 points, as the discombobulated Heat lost their grip. And the man who had fueled the comeback with his third-quarter scoring spurt watched from the bench for much of the fourth quarter before again finding himself in the middle of everything.
Pierce re-entered the game with 3:30 to play. The Celtics had overtaken the Heat by that point, leading by seven and allowing only 5 points in the period. Pierce had the ball in the final minute and was dribbling to his left when Udonis Haslem bumped him on the right shoulder. It was a foul. It was not called. The contact caused Pierce to wince and, after getting a pass to Kevin Garnett, he collapsed in front of the Miami bench.
It was the same shoulder that had bothered him this season and he described the pain as "a numbness, stinging, like you feel when you hit your funny bone." As the Celtics rushed to see how he was, a little pushing, shoving and elbowing (from Kevin Garnett, who may face a Game 2 suspension) ensued. Pierce was at the center of it, at the bottom of it, and had no idea what was going on.
"I just knew there was a commotion, but that was it,'' he said.
Pierce stayed in the game, thanks to an interminable delay as the referees watched film of the fracas. Pierce said afterward that the shoulder should be fine with a little rest and ice. Two days off between games doesn't hurt either.
The Celtics defense did present itself, finally, although it was two reserves, Tony Allen and Glen Davis, who really provided the spark. But there was little happening at the other end. Ray Allen was in the throes of a horrible shooting night (2-of-9 with no outside makes, but a lot of good looks) and Garnett had only one jump shot to his credit.
Someone had to get it going. In the past, these situations have been made for Paul Pierce. And in Game 1, he reminded one and all that it was, indeed, the playoffs and time to get serious.
Who knows, maybe he saw himself on the screen and thought, 'You know what, it is the playoffs.' Because from that point on, Paul Pierce and the Celtics played with the sense of urgency and purpose that we haven't seen all that often this season.
And for the Celtics, it couldn't have come at a better time.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss