Pierce, Celtics get comfortable in road rout
NEW YORK — The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden is absolutely blood-boiling for Paul Pierce. It’s been his Colosseum this season, the place where he’s hit game-winners and done victory laps to celebrate and rub it in at the same time.
He didn’t have to wonder about the reception he would get last night.
The Knicks were playing their first playoff game since 2004, and in Pierce they had one of their favorite contemporary villains not named LeBron James.
“This is a pretty reckless crowd,’’ Pierce said. “When they were saying, ‘Let’s go Knicks,’ it was one of the louder crowds I’ve seen in the playoffs in quite some time. It was pretty intimidating at first.’’
Pierce had his own choir of haters behind the Celtics’ bench.
They tossed profanities at him while he tried to focus on free throws. They insulted him while he connected on 3-point plays. Their venom had no boundaries.
He wasn’t fazed by it. He fed off it.
“Just mentally, when they cheer, I feel like they’re cheering for me,’’ Pierce said. “I don’t ever feel like I’m not at home. It’s all mental. You can feed off it or you could let it scare you and you could be nervous. But you’ve got to find ways to psych yourself up and just use it for energy. That’s what I try to do, especially with tough road crowds.’’
Pierce missed just five shots. He scored a game-high 38 points, pushing the Celtics to a 113-96 win and giving the Celtics a three-games-to-none lead in their first-round series.
He seemed to relish the fact that Boston is on the verge of making New York’s first playoff appearance in seven years as short as possible.
Knowing the powder keg the Celtics were walking into, coach Doc Rivers broke from his normal ways when he talked to the team before the game.
“I usually don’t talk about where we’re playing,’’ Rivers said. “But I did a little bit.’’
He had an honest concern that the theater could overtake the actual game.
“This was not entertainment,’’ Rivers said. “This was a competition and I thought we came with that mentality.’’
Pierce was aggressive early. In the first quarter, he went up strong for a layup and collided with Amar’e Stoudemire, who was playing with a back that was so sore he wore a heating pack while shooting around during halftime. Pierce let out a roar and pounded his chest. Stoudemire subtly threw his chest into Pierce’s, both players posturing.
In the second quarter, Pierce attacked the rim again and Roger Mason Jr. fouled him hard to prevent the basket, failing in that respect. Pierce hit the baseline hard, but bounced up, yelling to himself more than anyone else, “I’m too strong for that [stuff].’’
Pierce was just the start of the Knicks’ issues.
Ray Allen dropped 32 points, the first time in the Big Three era that Pierce and Allen each went for 30. In the first two games, Allen was 7 of 9 from the 3-point line. Last night, he drilled 8 of 11 from long range.
After a while, Pierce went from feeding off the crowd to feeding off Allen.
“It was like he was making every shot and it was putting pressure on me to make shots,’’ Pierce said. “I couldn’t let him down. It was fun to be a part of just to watch him take those shots.
“I was looking at him saying how much on fire he was, but then everybody was saying I’m on fire. It was good to be a part of that and just have teammates that could really put on a show like that.’’
Rajon Rondo put up his sixth career postseason triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and a Celtics playoff-record 20 assists.
Meanwhile, two Knicks stars were hobbled (Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, sidelined with a sore knee) and the other star, Carmelo Anthony, was under unfathomable pressure.
Stoudemire (7 points on 2-of-8 shooting) and Anthony (15 points on 4-of-16 shooting with five turnovers) both struggled.
Though the Knicks lost the first two games of the series, they came back to New York confident. The Celtics were looking to tighten up everything from rebounding and second-chance points to bench production.
Each facet was better last night. The Celtics outrebounded the Knicks, 43-33, and had 23 second-chance points to New York’s 15.
In the end, though, Pierce and Allen took it upon themselves to crash the party that Knicks fans had waited so long to throw.
“This is the one thing this place can do,’’ Rivers said. “You come in to put on a show and then get your tail kicked. I thought we came in to compete and then play team basketball, and we did that.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.