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Celtics 100, Heat 98

Scorching Pierce beats buzzer, puts Heat in 3-0 hole

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 24, 2010

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MIAMI — Doc Rivers had stressed the importance of Paul Pierce being the Celtics’ premier option for months.

It was the company line during the regular season when Pierce’s shot hit more iron than net. The night he went 2 for 10 in Denver. The night he went 1 for 9 in Philly. The night he went 3 for 13 in Milwaukee. Rivers repeated the mantra over and over: The ball needed to keep swinging Pierce’s way.

He knew what Pierce was playing through. The knee that swelled in the middle of the night after Pierce scored 21 points as a one-man rally against Indiana. The foot he strained in D.C. The thumb he sprained in Los Angeles. The knee he drained after the All-Star game. The shoulder stinger that crept up on him against San Antonio, and again in Game 1 against the Heat.

“It just seemed like it was coming back-to-back-to-back,’’ Pierce said. “It was very trying.’’

The Pierce that Rivers needed was the one that pulled the Celtics through games in Cleveland and Detroit and Los Angeles. Rivers would sit Pierce as much as he had to — 10 games — wait as long as he needed for Pierce to work his way back to nights like last night.

But Game 3 was no different from Games 1 or 2. If anything, it was more transparent. To stop Miami, the Celtics had to stop Dwyane Wade.

Pierce was their answer.

Wade took more shots than he had in either of the first two games. He scored 34 points on the Celtics, but with the score tied at 98 he pulled up from 26 feet and the shot clanged off the rim.

Just moments before, Pierce had given Rivers a glance.

“You could tell he wanted the ball,’’ Rivers said.

Rivers trusted him, feeling that even though he struggled the first two games, he was finding his rhythm.

With Dorell Wright trying to stretch his 6-foot-9-inch frame in front of Pierce’s shot, Pierce dribbled, eyeing the right elbow — the point on the floor that had become his sweet spot not by choice, but because of a bone bruise in 2008 that made it painful for him to go left for the stepback he mastered. He pulled up from 21 feet, the clock on zeros.

Net.

Swarmed by his teammates, the Celtics had taken a 100-98 victory as well as a historically insurmountable 3-0 lead, using Pierce’s 32 points to wash out Wade’s 34-point night.

“That’s ‘The Truth,’ ’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “He lives for games like this.’’

In a game the Celtics needed just as much as the Heat, Rivers got the player he had been banking on.

“He is a star,’’ Rivers said. “He never loses confidence.’’

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.

Giving up a 14-point lead in Game 1, then being abused for 48 minutes in a 29-point Game 2 loss had seemingly broken the Heat. But to come back from an 8-point deficit at the start of the first quarter only to lose on the last shot was crushing.

“Tonight was definitely a tough loss,’’ Wright said. “That was definitely a backbreaker right there. But we’ve got to come out and fight and come out swinging on Sunday.’’

Wade carried the Heat all night, but had to be carried off the floor before the final play, his left leg cramping after the missed 3-pointer during Miami’s last possession.

“When I bent down to shoot the shot the cramp came,’’ Wade said.

The Heat were without their biggest weapon. The Celtics had a floor full of them.

Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (16 points, six rebounds) were decoys in motion designed to get Pierce a good look with space to work.

“We put our fate in his hands that last shot,’’ said Allen, who followed up his 25-point performance in Game 2 with 25 last night. “He came through for us. It is great to have somebody that can make shots like that at the buzzer.’’

Pierce knocked down winners before. His 20-footer in Game 5 of last year’s first-round series with the Bulls sent the Celtics back to Boston up 3-2 in a series they went on to win. He knows his role has changed since Allen and Garnett joined him two seasons ago. His body’s changed as well, not allowing him to heal the way he once could. But he knows the player he’s capable of being.

“I’ve tried to do other things and bring what the game needs that day. Obviously, they didn’t need me to score 30 points in Game 1 or Game 2. I had to do the other intangibles to help my team win. That’s what I had to do tonight.’’

It was the night Rivers had been calling for all season.

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