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Defensively, Pierce in denial

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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WALTHAM — The play wasn’t as noticeable as, say, the fourth-quarter baseline dunk that essentially sealed the Celtics’ Game 4 victory over the Cavaliers Sunday, but it set the tone.

LeBron James wanted to touch the ball, and Paul Pierce wouldn’t let him.

On the first possession, Pierce essentially turned himself into a picket fence, denying James the ball on the wing. The Cavaliers had to go down low to Shaquille O’Neal, who missed a 9-footer. James took just five shots in the quarter — half of what he took in the first quarter of Game 3.

The message after just one play was clear. If the Cavaliers were going to get the ball to James, they were going to have to pass it through Pierce.

Still, Pierce’s defense wasn’t the type of play that starts M-V-P chants. There’s no advanced metrics company that keeps track of passes denied.

It was simply defense — a facet of basketball that goes largely unnoticed — and seeing Pierce, who’s made a living as a professional scorer, commit more of himself to defense is almost like watching him play the game in disguise.

“I think unfortunately for Paul, he’s an offensive player and that’s what everyone sees in him,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “[But] he has a defensive role in this series, so they’re going to look at his numbers. And that’s the bad part of being Paul Pierce.

“If it was Tony Allen, people would be happy — “He’s doing a great job defensively!’’ — but it’s Paul and so they want more and we’re going to get more out of Paul. I believe that.’’

His numbers in this series — 16 for 50 from the floor, 4 for 18 from long distance, nearly three turnovers a night and a modest 11.8 points — combined with his injury troubles during the season led observers to wonder if he was healthy. But Pierce said health has nothing to do with his offensive performance.

“The key for me is just being focused, being ready to give this team what it needs to win,’’ he said. “There’s nothing wrong with me.’’

Guarding a player that’s the end-all be-all of the Cavaliers offense — James plays the wing, he posts up, he runs the point, he ignites fast breaks — takes a toll.

“I know guarding LeBron is no easy task,’’ Pierce said. “He’s a two-time MVP, a lot of the offense goes through him. Pretty much all the offense goes through him. So, I know I’m going to have to focus on that end of the court more so than the offensive end, and I definitely knew that coming into the series.’’

Pierce’s foul trouble has made finding a rhythm difficult. In Game 1, three first-half fouls made him tentative after the break. In Game 2, he played just 12 first-half minutes with three fouls chained to his ankles. He made it through Game 3 without getting called for a foul, but Sunday he stretched five fouls out over 31 minutes.

“You’re used to playing your minutes and you’re coming out at a point in the game where you’ve got to really pick it up offensively,’’ Pierce said. “I’m digging myself a ditch as far as with my fouls. But I think they’re good fouls that I’m giving, some bad ones, but that’s the way the game goes. That’s not something I’m really worried about. I know it’s something I can do a better job to control.’’

Pierce is only a series removed from his 32-point assault on the Heat in Game 3 in Miami.

And two postseasons ago, he rose to the occasion in Game 7 of the second-round series against Cleveland, sending the Cavaliers home with a 41-point explosion.

“We’re tied 2-2 in this series and Paul hasn’t had his best game yet,’’ said Rajon Rondo. “I’m sure he’ll come through. Paul’s one of the best scorers in our league, he just hasn’t had a great feel for his shot yet in this series. I have high expectations from Paul.’’

The Celtics have won two games with Pierce being less of an offensive threat, so they don’t want to force things.

“We don’t want to sacrifice the entire offense or the team to try to get Paul involved,’’ Rondo said. “Paul’s an unselfish player so he’s not complaining about shots or that he’s only scoring 11 or 12 points. As long as we’re winning, it’s a team sport. He’s very unselfish, and it’s about sacrifices.’’

What Pierce said he’s learned in 12 years in the league is how to work through tough stretches, realizing his scoring might be his least valuable asset as the Celtics try to advance.

“I’ve been in every situation regardless of whether it’s foul trouble, not playing, things not going so well for you,’’ Pierce said. “I know how to get through those times mentally. It doesn’t affect me like it used to when I was a younger player.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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