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Celtics 99, Pacers 88

Celtics’ Pierce completely in command

His triple-double holds off Pacers

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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Paul Pierce had his eyes open from the jump yesterday, scanning for assists wherever he could find them.

He was standing at the wing in front of the Celtics bench early in their 99-88 win over the Pacers when he stumbled across the kind of dime that no player in his right mind would have passed up 10 years ago. These days, though, there might be the need to check the expiration date.

Shaquille O’Neal was hanging out under the rim with no one near him, because Roy Hibbert, who was supposed to be guarding him, was lunging at Pierce trying not to give up a 3-pointer.

Barely blinking, Pierce fired a two-hand pass at the rim.

“I thought, ‘No!’ ’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “There was just no way.’’

The experiment seemed worthwhile to Pierce.

“He doesn’t have to jump too high to dunk the ball,’’ Pierce said. “I just tried to get it to the rim.’’

O’Neal stretched his 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound frame, snatched the ball with his catcher’s mitt hands, and threw it down just as Jeff Foster made a cameo appearance.

“I was first guy down, he threw it up, and I just went up and got it,’’ said O’Neal, whose eyes bugged out as he did a strut that was equal parts Ric Flair and Frankenstein.

“I thought he was going to pull a Merton Hanks,’’ joked guard Nate Robinson, referring to the ex-49er’s funky chicken celebratory dance.

Pierce pumped his fist after the second of his 12 assists on the afternoon. The Celtics’ Swiss Army knife added 18 points and 10 rebounds in helping Boston push its winning streak to 13.

“Shaq is a pretty big guy,’’ Pierce said. “He looks up, I get his head nod, and he says, ‘Throw it to the rim.’ That’s what I try to do.’’

It was Pierce’s sixth regular-season triple-double; he had one in the playoffs against the Nets in 2003. His last came March 8, 2006 in the Garden against Philadelphia, when he had 31 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a 104-101 win.

In going 6 of 8 from the floor and 6 for 6 from the line in 37 minutes, yesterday’s was probably the most energy-efficient triple-double he could have crafted. With point guard Rajon Rondo out for at least the next few weeks, the Celtics are without the league leader in assists, but Pierce has filled the void, going for double-digit assists each of the past two games without Rondo.

“He’s our point forward right now,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “We’re putting him basically in Rondo’s spot in a lot of ways, for him to be the facilitator, and he’s doing a good job of it.’’

“Honestly, I’m a playmaker,’’ said Pierce. “Usually, me and [Rondo] handle a lot of the playmaking responsibilities — along with Kevin [Garnett] and Ray [Allen] to an extent. With Rondo out, I am asked to handle the ball a little bit more than I’ve had to. That’s the results, I think.’’

Even though the Celtics made the afternoon miserable for Danny Granger (19 points but 15 missed shots) and Darren Collison (15 points on 5-of-14 shooting), the Celtics had to overcome the 18 turnovers (and the 13 points they led to) that kept Indiana in the game, not to mention a 17-point, 14-rebound effort from Hibbert.

“It’s funny,’’ Rivers said. “When you have 99 points, you shoot 54 percent, you would think you’d be thrilled with your offense. And today the turnovers are what allowed them to stay in the game. But overall, everything else was good.’’

With Mike Dunleavy (10 points) and T.J. Ford (13) as anchors, the Pacers won the battle of the benches. Glen Davis scored 18 points (quietly extending a streak of seven straight games in double figures) and grabbed six boards for a second unit that struggled to score but ultimately got stops.

“The second unit, in the second half, they couldn’t score, but they got stops,’’ Rivers said. “Where in the first half, they couldn’t score and they allowed the other team to score.’’

After spraying it around early (he had eight assists through three quarters), Pierce switched hats in the fourth, scoring all 8 of his second-half points and also grabbing four of his rebounds to close the game out.

“I’m trying to give the game what it needs,’’ he said. “There are going to be some nights Rondo is out [when] I may be asked to score a little bit more. I just try to do the things necessary for this ballclub to win. I pride myself on being a complete player.’’

With Rondo out, Pierce temporarily moves up on the unofficial list of best passers in New England. The top spot, though, is solidified.

“I’m not quite Tom Brady,’’ Pierce said. “I’ve got him pretty high up there in the rankings all-time.’’

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