It’s been a while. But Paul Pierce hasn’t forgotten how to fly a solo mission.
Playing without Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett tonight, Pierce had 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists as the Celtics outlasted the Miami Heat, 112-108, in overtime. The Big Three was down to one, and one was enough on this occasion.
“It almost came down to the fact that we had Paul and they didn’t have [Dwyane] Wade,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “Paul was making all the shots. I thought that last shot he took [in regulation] was in, too.”
That last shot came with the game tied at 100 as the clock wound down in regulation. Rivers elected to keep the ball in Pierce’s hands for the final play. Miami expected Pierce to take the final shot, but not even a double-team could prevent the Celtics captain from driving left and putting up a clean look from the elbow. That miss at the buzzer was one of the lone blemishes on a 16-point fourth quarter for Pierce.
“Pierce really made it tough,” said Miami coach Eric Spoelstra. “He was scoring on every one of our matchups. Before we could even come over to help he was shooting the pull up jump shot, one dribble over the top.”
Pierce scored 10 of the last 13 points for the Celtics in regulation, matching Miami’s young gunner Mario Chalmers (19 points) down the stretch to keep the Celtics in contention. Playing without Wade, the Heat simply had no answer for Pierce’s individual dominance.
“We were battling,” said Spoelstra. “We started doubling and running the guys at him. It was opening up some drives and things…We just couldn’t get it done.”
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Pierce was expected to be the guy. But the additions of Allen and Garnett before last season changed the Celtics’ approach and lessened the pressure on Pierce. One All-Star became three. Live-and-die-by-Pierce became “Ubuntu”. A team that went through several losing-seasons since drafting the Kansas star became NBA champions.
Without the luxury of his veteran brethren tonight, and with Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen also injured for Boston, Pierce was forced into flashback mode. He took the control of the game immediately, scoring the first six points for the Celtics on his way to 12 points in the first quarter.
“When he comes out in attack mode somebody is in trouble,” said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. “He carried us tonight.”
Pierce’s 48 minutes played and 23 shot-attempts were both game highs.
“In the second half I told him that it was a TV game,” said Rivers. “There’s a hundred timeouts. [I told him] I might have to keep him in, and he was fine with it…there will be nights where we have to up his minutes, and this was one of those nights, without Ray and all the guys. And he was prepared for it.”
The team’s arena staff put even more pressure on Pierce before the final play of regulation, playing the Superman theme while flashing a close-up of Pierce on the Jumbotron. If the Heat didn’t know Pierce was going to take the last shot before that point, that bit of marketing surely clued them in. Still, Pierce made it look easy in getting off a clean look.
“I’ve been watching him since college,” said newly-acquired Celtics guard Stephon Marbury. “He’s basically played the same way. He’s a killer. He’s a killer. He does what’s needed at the end of the game to win.”
While he didn’t close out the game in regulation, Pierce scored five points in overtime to help put the game away. He coaxed in a pair of free throws to chants of “M-V-P” from the Garden crowd for the final points of the game.
“We just needed a win,” said Pierce. “Right now at this point, it just seems like bodies are going down left and right…this was a big game for us.”