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Bob Ryan

Pierce finds winning spirit in nick of time

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 23, 2009

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It would have been a Blue Christmas without this one, and I promise that’s the end of the seasonal metaphors.

But imagine if the Celtics had lost to the 9-17 Indiana Pacers for the second time this season and thus turned a nice little soft spot in the schedule into a coal-in-the-stocking - sorry, but sometimes it’s hard to resist - 1-2 homestand.

Humbug, I tell you!

Ah, but when it was over there were relaxing sighs and smiles all around. The Celtics awoke from their first half winter’s nap, erasing a 15-point halftime deficit in the tidy span of 7:15 and eventually grinding out a 103-94 victory that sends them off on the next four-game trip in the proper spirit.

The Celtics had to play this one without Kevin Garnett, who was grounded by Doc Rivers because of a bruised right thigh he sustained Dec. 14 against Memphis, and which has had the team’s emotional leader operating at less than full speed. Thinking, as always, about the Big Picture, Doc decided he could risk the consequences of playing an overmatched opponent at home against the positive effect of having him far healthier for a trip that will take the Celtics to Orlando, Los Angeles (Clippers), Oakland (Golden State), and Phoenix.

Knowing in his heart he had absolutely done the right thing, Doc settled back to watch his team totally stink up the joint in the first half. The Celtics trailed from the get-go and capped off a dismal performance by surrendering a period-ending 16-4 run.

It was a shocking 57-42 mess at the half, and you couldn’t blame it all on KG’s absence.

“No, no, no, no, no,’’ Rivers insisted. “We did that all to ourselves. All I told them at the half was that the defense was awful, the effort was awful. There was no defensive energy. It was just like last year [when Garnett was out]. We had the ability to score. We just couldn’t stop them.’’

The Pacers were knocking down shots with regularity, many of them open jumpers created in what the NBA likes to refer to as “early offense’’ opportunities. The Celtics were lazy. They weren’t getting back on defense, even when they scored. It was that simple.

“It was a walk-it-up game for us, and they were running it down our throats,’’ Rivers pointed out.

There wasn’t a lot of fiery rhetoric at halftime. It was simply a matter of each guy looking in the mirror and saying, “You ready to start playing or what?’’

“We shot good shots,’’ said Paul Pierce, “but in the end you look up and they had 57 points. And that’s what Doc really stressed. We’re not a team that gives up 57 points in a half, especially to a team that’s struggling.’’

Ray Allen hit a jumper to get things started, but it was all about the defense, as it has to be in any good NBA comeback. The Pacers found out in the third quarter that they were playing a very different ballclub. The Celtics took their first lead at 67-66 on an Allen jumper. The 15-point lead was gone, and the half was barely 7 minutes old.

The Pacers hung around through 86-86, which is when Doc re-inserted Pierce and Rasheed Wallace. Pierce broke that tie with a step-back 19-footer, the first 2 of 7 consecutive points for No. 34, and that enabled people to forget the fact that he had missed his first 10 shots in this game.

“Just staying with it, man,’’ he said with a shrug. “I’ve been in this league long enough to shrug off shooting slumps; that don’t really bother me. The shots I was getting were good shots. I was thinking it’s just a matter of time before they go in . . . I wasn’t going to continue to force it, but I was getting great shots. I thought something was wrong with the rim, not with me.’’

Remember that this is a man who once had 2 points in a half and finished with 48. Shooters are a different breed.

“Another player would stop shooting and turn it into a bad game,’’ Rivers said. “Great shooters always think the next one is going in.’’

Chalk this up as yet another game the Celtics could not have won without Wallace. He didn’t score all that much (9), in his first starting role as a Celtic, but he had a team-high 13 rebounds and was a major defensive presence in the second half. “He gets his hands on balls,’’ Pierce said. “He gets away with murder out there. He has a lot of veteran tricks.’’

(ATTENTION NBA OFFICIALS: Paul’s merely engaging in hyperbole.)

Once the Celtics turned that 86-86 state-of-affairs into a 7-point lead, they weren’t giving it back. “We let their team get set in the half-court and run sets at them,’’ said Indiana’s Dahntay Jones. “You’re really not going to score that much against them. We allowed them to get set defensively and they did their job and got stops, and dug it out.’’

Next stop: Orlando on Christmas Day. “Christmas, to me, is all about giving,’’ Pierce said. “And we can give the fans a treat on Christmas Day, play a great game.’’

He won’t start off 0 for 10 again. You can bet on that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe’s 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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