It was another vintage night in the career of Paul Pierce as the Celtics were able to power through the Atlanta Hawks 87-80 in Game Two of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Paul Pierce, “The Truth and the Captain”, led the way for the Celtics battling through a tough shooting night (12-26, 1-5 from deep) to score 36 points and also rack up a game-high 14 rebounds. With the one game suspension to point guard Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen sitting out yet another game with a sore ankle, Pierce had to take over most of the responsibilities for the Celtics offensively. He did so brilliantly, even if his second and third quarters did leave something to be desired for C’s fans.
Pierce started the game scoring the first 9 points for the Celtics and from that point you could tell that he would not allow his team to roll over and give the Hawks a two game lead in this series. Every player in the NBA is competitive (you have to be to even make it to that level) but there is something special about Pierce and how much he hates to lose. Pierce also understands his role as a leader and unlike Rondo is able to harness most of his emotions and use them to fuel his game to take him to another level. I’m not trying to knock Rondo here, but at times in his career he has come up small when things are not going his way, while in the same token Pierce uses every step and every possession as motivation and he always wants the ball in his hands no matter what kind of game he is having that night.
Tonight the Celtics needed every ounce of energy that Pierce was able to give the team. Early on, Jeff Teague was a force for the Hawks and was really controlling the game on both ends of the floor. The Hawks point guard took advantage of Rondo being out and finished the game with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and (just) 2 assists. He probably should have done more and was a little too quiet down the stretch but for the most of the game he was able to maintain a lead for the Hawks. Hawks forward Josh Smith was also a monster while he was in the game, scoring 16 points and recording 12 rebounds, but unfortunately late in the fourth quarter he landed awkwardly and left the game with what is being called a “sprained left knee”. Smith also a couple of dunks that really erupted the Phillips Arena crowd, and if this injury is serious would be a really tough blow to the Hawks chances (especially with other power forward Al Horford already on the shelf). Former Celtic Joe Johnson led the Hawks in scoring tonight, earning 22 points on 7-17 shooting, but just like most of the Hawks team he totally disappeared down the stretch.
After Joe Johnson knocked down a wide-open 24 foot 3-pointer to give the Hawks a 65-54 lead with just over 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter it looked like Atlanta was in full control and would take a 2-0 lead in this best of 7 series. But Paul Pierce was not having any of that. Over the final 15 minutes he outscored the entire Hawks team by himself (Pierce 18 – Hawks 15) and the rest of the Celtics makeshift lineup was able to produce enough to even up this series and steal home-court advantage back in what is now essentially a best of five series. Kevin Garnett was the Robin to Pierce’s Batman tonight, with Big Ticket scoring 15 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and adding a game-high 5 assists (along with Joe Johnson and Josh Smith). The young Avery Bradley has did a commendable job filling in for what has become his typical backcourt mate in Rondo, playing a very valuable 42 minutes scoring 14 points and filling up the box score with 3 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 2 rebounds.
At the end of the day the night belongs to Paul Pierce. After the game Pierce commented “Every game is different. It’s not a TV show where know how many minutes you’re going to play. I try to give the game what it needs”. That is exactly what Paul Pierce has done time and time again for the boys in green and white since being drafted 10th overall in the 1998 NBA Draft, and for that his #34 will be hanging in the rafters of the TD Garden not long after he decides to retire (which my personal guess would be at the end of next season). However long the rest of his career lasts or how many postseason games he can help the Celtics win this year and into the future, games like tonight are what Pierce will be remembered for. That’s not a bad legacy to leave.