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Celtics 94, Nets 80

Pierce ignites Celtics

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By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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Paul Pierce just needed a couple days off. And an MRI.

The Celtics held Pierce out of two practice sessions, the downtime allowing foot and hand bruises to heal. The magnetic resonance imaging eased Pierce’s mind, confirming his left foot was still sound.

The rest was up to him. And Pierce showed last night that his 1-point performance against Miami Sunday was indeed an aberration, scoring 31 points in the Celtics’ 94-80 victory over New Jersey in their final game before the All-Star break.

“I felt better,’’ Pierce said. “Getting some of my health back. Some little nagging injuries I’ve been dealing with the past few days, so it’s a good start, heading in the direction of feeling better.’’

This contest had the potential to be a yawner, the Celtics looking ahead to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles on Sunday, the Nets (17-40) long ago out of contention. But Pierce set the tone with an intense start, his dunk in traffic giving him 8 points in the opening 2:55 as the Celtics took a 10-1 lead. By then, New Jersey coach Avery Johnson had called two timeouts — one 29 seconds into the game — in an attempt to inspire the Nets. That didn’t work very well, but the Nets eventually got back in contention, the Celtics alternating between extreme lethargy in the opening half and intense defending down the stretch.

The Celtics squandered a 15-point first-half lead, then overcame a 9-point second-half deficit.

The Nets went on a 12-0 run spanning the halves and opened up a 61-52 lead on Anthony Morrow’s free throw, following a Kendrick Perkins technical foul, with 7:40 remaining in the third quarter. After that, the Celtics adjusted their defense on Brook Lopez, matching him up with Glen Davis, and sending Kevin Garnett for front-side help and Rajon Rondo to the back side.

The Celtics’ defending kicked in, the Nets without a field goal for 5:45 of the third quarter and the final 6:18 of the game.

“I was upset at halftime because I thought our starters came out with unbelievable spirit to start the game,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “And then, our second unit — and it happens — watched how much we were scoring and they forgot that the reason we were scoring was because we were playing great defense.

“Listen, every game’s not going to be beautiful. You would love to blow every team out but that’s not going to happen, it’s the NBA. We just want to win the game.’’

The Celtics finally took the lead for good on Ray Allen’s 3-pointer (the team’s first after nine misses from behind the arc) for an 80-78 advantage with 5:58 remaining, the start of a 16-0 run.

“We were just trying to put this team away,’’ Pierce said. “The pesky Nets, they’re trying to do everything they can to win. We’re trying to grind it out.

“I thought it was very important for us to really pick up our play in the fourth quarter, make a run. It probably wouldn’t have been a fun weekend for us if we had lost this.’’

The Celtics were able to defeat Miami (85-82) despite 0-for-10 shooting from Pierce. They might not have been able to duplicate that success against the Nets with a similar Pierce performance.

“Maybe next time I’ll sit the game, but it’s hard for me to sit, especially when my team is out there trying to win,’’ said Pierce. “I was able to cut a little bit more, still a little bit of pain. I feel it more now after the game than during the game because my adrenaline was really flowing.

“When I had the situation a couple years back when I broke my foot it was the same type situation — some pain in my foot just walking around. I just really wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing any further damage to it. Hopefully, this weekend, some rest will heal it up going into the second half of the season.’’

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