The Toronto Raptors and a full house at the TD Banknorth Garden were the witnesses last night. Paul Pierce was the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But. He was also the judge and jury, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter to rally the Celtics to a 94-87 victory over the Raptors.
The game continued a season trend - the opposition starting out quickly, the Celtics seemingly playing in quicksand. Then some intensive defensive pressure turned the momentum as the Celtics (7-1) won their fifth successive game and set up a showdown against Atlanta (5-0) tomorrow.
But even if the save-the-best-for-last formula seems to be working, the Celtics might have fallen short had not Pierce produced what was according to the team the most prolific quarter by a Celtic since Todd Day had 24 in a 1995 game.
Pierce (36 points) was firing off the dribble, driving into the lane, setting up for contested 3-pointers, and doing so with a sprained right hand that was cooling off only afterward as he attended a news conference holding an ice bag.
Pierce was directly involved in all but two of the Celtics' 11 field goals in the quarter, and also grabbed a key rebound following a Kendrick Perkins block with the score tied, 84-all. Pierce then hit a turnaround jumper to break the tie with 1:38 remaining, and popped a 17-footer for the clinching points with 66 seconds to go.
"I love when Superman goes in the booth and transforms," Kevin Garnett said.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 16 points, but closed the first half with a strong defensive effort that coach Doc Rivers marked as a turning point.
Perkins symbolized the Celtics' frustration as he and Jermaine O'Neal were assessed technical fouls (Perkins departing with three personal fouls), O'Neal's foul shot giving Toronto a 46-30 lead with 3:02 remaining in the half.
Though the Celtics were thoroughly outplayed in the first half, they stayed in contention by holding the Raptors without a field goal for the final 3:27.
"We said in the timeout, let's see if we can hold them scoreless for the rest of the quarter," Rivers said, "and they got the 2 points off free throws, and that proved to the guys that they can guard, that we can get stops."
In the final seconds of the first half, Garnett converted a follow and Rajon Rondo a drive to cut the deficit to 48-36. Ray Allen sank the Celtics' first two shots of the second half, improbably cutting the deficit to 8 points.
"The only thing I was upset with in the first half," Rivers said, "I thought because we were missing layups and open shots, it carried to the defensive end, and that's not a trait of ours. We had a bunch of guys hanging their heads, and they were lighting us up on the other end."
Late in the third quarter, the Celtics turned up their defensive intensity, stopping Toronto on successive possessions of 32 and 23 seconds. With 44 seconds remaining, Allen was initially called for an offensive foul, but the call was overruled, his foul shot taking the Celtics within 61-57.
Pierce scored 14 points in a 6:20 span to start the final quarter, his 3-pointer cutting the deficit to 1 point 29 seconds before Eddie House's 3-pointer gave the Celtics a 79-77 lead with 4:45 remaining. Pierce also fed Garnett in the lane for an 81-79 edge with 4:13 to play.
But the Celtics had to rally again, following a 7-2 Toronto run, this time on a Ray Allen 3-pointer (with 3:02 to go) and a Pierce turnaround (1:38) following a Perkins block on O'Neal.
After O'Neal was stripped on the baseline, Pierce scored the clinching points, followed by a Jose Calderon airball and a Pierce drive for a 6-point lead with 34 seconds to go. Pierce's free throw with eight seconds left gave him the third-highest point total in a quarter for a Celtic behind Day (against Minnesota Dec. 22, 1995) and Larry Bird, who had a 24-point quarter against Indiana in 1983.
"Pierce was great, but we were right there," Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said. "I thought the play where Ray Allen came off the bench cold and hit a three when we were up 3 was big. If he misses that shot, maybe it changes the game.
"You look at the shots Pierce made, he drove the basket a couple times but he was making a lot of 18-, 19-foot shots with guys contesting it."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.