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Celtics captain pulls rank

Pierce leads way, delivers victory

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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Before the final buzzer even sounded, Paul Pierce had an Eastern Conference champions hat in hand, getting an early start on congratulating Magic players for a hard-fought series, and thankful that history wouldn’t be made at his team’s expense.

Facing the daunting task of having to win a third playoff game in Orlando if the Celtics didn’t close out the series in Game 6 at TD Garden, Pierce did what great captains do: He came up big when the moment called for it, not letting his team squander a third straight chance at another trip to the NBA Finals.

Afterward, looking exhausted but exultant, Pierce took a minute to reflect on what’s been an uphill climb this postseason, at least on paper. The fourth-seeded Celtics beat the top seed in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the second round, then sent home the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and the team that advanced at Boston’s expense a year ago.

“This has been the toughest road,’’ Pierce said. “It shows the mental toughness we have, for this team to be doing what we’re doing.’’

Pierce was at his best in the 96-84 series clincher, scoring a game-high 31 points, grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds, adding 5 assists, and shooting 9 for 15 from the field (4 of 5 on 3-pointers) and 9 of 10 from the line. Once again he logged the most minutes.

Tired of hearing increasing whispers of a possible collapse after the Celtics watched their 3-0 series lead cut to 3-2, Pierce said he didn’t put much stock in what was being said. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Boston fans saw it happen in hockey two weeks ago, when the Bruins dropped four straight to the Flyers after taking a 3-0 lead.

“I never think negatively — about losing, about being up 3-0 and something tragic happening,’’ Pierce said. “This is not hockey, this is basketball. It’ll happen one day [in the NBA]; I’m just glad we could prolong it one more year.’’

Pierce’s offense jumped out on the stat sheet, but it was his defense that impressed coach Doc Rivers the most.

“If you want to see how Paul Pierce is playing, go to the rebound numbers,’’ Rivers said. “If those numbers are high, that means he’s playing well.’’

Eleven of Pierce’s 13 rebounds came on the defensive end, helping limit Orlando’s second-chance opportunities.

The Magic had the advantage from 3-point range, making more shots than the Celtics from behind the arc in four of the first five games in the series. But it was the Celtics who dialed long distance in the clincher, with Pierce making two of the biggest.

Early in the third quarter, with the Celtics still enjoying the 13-point lead they had at halftime, Pierce and Ray Allen combined for three 3-pointers in three possessions over a 1:52 span that turned a 57-44 lead into 66-44 one. Allen made the first two, with Pierce knocking down the third from in front of the Orlando bench.

Then, with the Celtics mired in an offensive funk during the fourth quarter, with a 24-point lead reduced to 17, Pierce went long again. He pump-faked a defender with the shot clock winding down, and launched a bomb from the top of the key a blink before the horn. The ensuing swish put the Magic in a 20-point hole with 6:48 left, leaving the Garden faithful wondering two things: When will Gino appear on the videoboard, and how many “Beat LA’’ chants would be screamed before game’s end?

Behind Pierce’s four 3-pointers and Ray Allen’s three, the Celtics made 10 shots from 3-point range in 22 attempts. Orlando took the same number of 3-pointers, but made only six.

About the only thing that Pierce misfired on last night was knocking over a tray of food in a very crowded postgame locker room, near the Eastern Conference trophy, which sat on a table, being ignored. He shrugged it off.

“I’m delirious,’’ Pierce said. “I need some rest.’’

He’s got five days. Then the 2008 NBA Finals MVP will take to the court in either Los Angeles or Phoenix with his teammates, ready to play for a second world championship in three years.

“We never take these moments for granted,’’ Pierce said. “Especially at this point in my career where it’s winding down. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, to get back here is a great accomplishment, but even greater if we win another one.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com

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