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Showing drive from the backseat

Paul Pierce scored just 9 points, but 2 came when he got by LeBron James for a key baseline dunk to give the Celtics a 90-85 lead in the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce scored just 9 points, but 2 came when he got by LeBron James for a key baseline dunk to give the Celtics a 90-85 lead in the fourth quarter. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
May 10, 2010

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The Celtics’ storied past is not lost on Paul Pierce. Perhaps he wasn’t schooled on the history of the Green when he arrived in Boston after a childhood of following the Showtime Lakers. Twelve years as a member of the Celtics, and you are Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,’’ it’s part of your subconscious.

So Pierce realizes the little things, the hustle plays, the tough defense, the screen of a bigger player, are just as critical to playoff success — in Celtics lore — as the dagger 3-pointer or game-winning elbow jumper.

Pierce was a lost cause offensively for most of yesterday’s 97-87 win over the Cavaliers in Game 4. In the first 45:39 of the game, Pierce converted two shots, a putback layup in the first quarter and a 10-footer near end of the first half.

He shot-putted a 3-pointer in the second half that revealed nothing but uncertainty. He didn’t will the ball in, he wished it in. He shot the ball yesterday not like a future Hall of Famer and perennial All-Star, but like Phil from Framingham trying to win an HD TV with a halfcourt shot.

Pierce lacked that arrogance that has made him a Celtic great. He continuously passed up shots, the most glaring example at the end of the first half when he turned down an elbow jumper and passed it to no one in particular for a 3-pointer.

Doc Rivers stuck with Pierce because he was working feverishly defending LeBron James. But Pierce suddenly thrust himself into the game with a throwback play, a streaking dunk down the baseline that stunned the sellout crowd.

After Anderson Varejao blocked Ray Allen’s layup attempt with the Celtics leading, 88-85, with 2:26 left, Rajon Rondo grabbed the ball, caught Pierce sprinting down the baseline, and flipped a bounce pass. Pierce rose quickly and jammed the ball with vigor, releasing his frustration on the rim.

Pierce is not the dunker he used to be, so the play ignited the 18,624 that frantically feared a Cavaliers rally. Less than a minute later, Pierce was fouled on a layup by Varejao and sank both free throws to essentially seal the game at 94-85.

Pierce scored just 9 points, finishing 3 for 8 from the field with five fouls, but his dunk could go down as one of those timeless Celtic playoff memories that fans cherish. History isn’t lost on Pierce. He watches the videoboard and sees Larry Bird’s face slam onto the floor diving for a ball in Game 5 of the 1991 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against Indiana. He hears Johnny Most’s voice growl “Havlicek stole the ball’’ from the Eastern semis in 1965. He knows Gerald Henderson is revered in Boston simply because of his Game 2 pickoff of a James Worthy pass in 1984.

Pierce has reached a point where his legacy is nearly cemented, so he has deflated his once-infamous ego and realizes his days of being the perennial catalyst are over.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about Paul Pierce, I am going to do the little things on any given night to help this team win,’’ he said. “Some nights you’ve got to take a backseat and go to the guys who are getting it done. I respect that. It’s not me, pouting, looking down when I don’t get the ball and I’m not shooting the ball well. It’s filling a role and trying to help this team win.’’

Offense never has been the Celtics’ problem. In Game 3, they played porous defense, lacked hustle and toughness. The Cavaliers dominated from the tip and the Celtics were lifeless. Yesterday, the Celtics didn’t need to outscore the Cavaliers but outwork them.

And when the game came down to the final few minutes, the Celtics needed what they lacked in Game 1: game-changing plays. If the Cavaliers stop the Celtics on that possession with 2:26 left, they have the ball with a chance to tie. Instead, Pierce’s dunk began their deflation. They were never the same.

“I’m at the point in my career where it don’t matter who gets the credit on this team,’’ Pierce said. “It’s about winning games. At the end of the game, when my legacy is put up in the air, it’s going to be like, ‘What did he do for his team?’ A lot of individual things I have done, but it’s about winning games, winning championships. If it’s going to be me getting 9 points, a couple of rebounds, a key charge or key rebound, that’s fine with me.’’

Pierce is averaging just 11.8 points and shooting 32 percent from the field in this series, yet the Celtics are tied at 2 heading to Cleveland. Pierce is convinced there are at least a few more big playoff games in his body.

His struggles are not unexpected. Rivers knew his leading scorer would labor after checking James. He knew defending the two-time MVP would have a direct effect on his offensive production. Rivers hasn’t lost confidence.

“Part of the reason Paul’s struggling is that he’s been in foul trouble every game,’’ Rivers said. “It’s tough to get a rhythm, get it going when you get two fouls. But you take one for the team and sometimes that may be guarding LeBron, and that’s taking one for the team and I think Paul has done a terrific job of that.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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