Through two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics and Sixers have each scored 173 points, with the difference between victory and defeat in each game a single point.
It would seem upon initial consideration that Doc Rivers had the evenness of this matchup of two intriguing but dissimilar teams in mind when he lamented following the Celtics' 82-81 loss in Game 2 Monday night at the Garden,'' I don't think we have a big margin of error.''
But the Celtics coach wasn't so much talking about the scoreboard as he was the limping collection of players he has to work with. The injuries and attrition -- Avery Bradley, indispensable against a quick team like the Sixers, missed time last night when his shoulder popped out for the third time in two weeks -- has led to such bizarre configurations as Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins playing alongside each other for a time during a pivotal third-quarter stretch in which the Sixers built a 57-49 lead.
The state of the roster, more than an aggravating Game 2 loss in which the Celtics scored 11 points in the third quarter, missed 32 of 46 shots after hitting their first four to start the game, and ultimately allowed the fragile-minded Sixers' collective confidence to swell heading home to Philly for Game 3, is why this loss could hover over this team for a while, perhaps even after they go their separate ways.
While Ray Allen (17 points) is playing sporadically well on his creaky ankle, it's not as if the Celtics will become healthier during the grind of the playoffs.
"We knew that [the injuries would have an effect] coming into this whole playoff run,'' Rivers said. "With the bodies we have, we've got guys coming in and out of games. Paul clearly is not 100 percent."
No, he is not, and the relevance of this cannot be overstated.. Paul Pierce is playing with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee, and the truth about The Truth is this: It has completely negated him. The guy in the No. 34 jersey, the most well-rounded scorer in Celtics history, looks the same as ever. But the basketball player is sadly unfamiliar. Monday night, he was little more than a ghost on the parquet.
Pierce, the geometric genius with the extraordinary footwork and endless array fakes, simply cannot angle himself into position to make his moves. When he's single-teamed, he can't beat his defender off the dribble, and he doesn't have the lift in his legs to shoot consistently from outside. When a second defender runs at him, the Sixers are drooling at the chance to hop in the passing lanes. At his best, Pierce isn't exactly quick, but he'll kill you methodically, then do it again. Now, he's just slow. The rim must look so far away right now.
The stat sheet is further confirmation that Pierce is not even close to right. In 37 minutes, he scored 7 points on 2 of 9 shooting. He took just a pair of free throws, a telltale sign if there ever was one. He had more turnovers (5) than assists (3) overall, and more turnovers (3) than points (2) in the second half.
Other than a three-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Celtics a 38-36 lead, there were few signs that Pierce was capable of being a contributor on offense, let along the go-to guy. Heck, he took six fewer shots than Brandon Bass, who has been abysmal in this series.
Pierce refused to make excuses -- "The knee was fine. I wore my knee brace today,'' he said afterward, quickly dismissing the line of questioning -- and some of his struggles can be attributed to Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, a superb plastic-man of a defender, as Sixers coach Doug Collins was quick to note.
"I feel like Andre Iguodala is a premiere defensive player at his position,'' said Collins. ''We played Boston three times this year, we played Atlanta three times, and Indiana four times. And we had seven wins against those three teams. A big part of that was having a guy who makes Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce or Danny Granger work hard every single night."
Pierce may have had to work hard every night during the three regular-season meetings between the Celtics and Sixers, but it wasn't without statistical reward. He averaged 17.6 points per game against Philly this year, below his average, but he hit 19 of 36 shots. He made Iguodala work, too.
Look, it's no fun to hammer on the Pierce story line, but his injury and the effect it is having on him and the Celtics' offense is the rare underplayed story in the Boston media. He is the fulcrum of their offense, the player who grinds out the points in virtually any situation. The vintage Pierce would have been essential during the third quarter stretch in which the Celtics were held scoreless for 4 minutes and 40 seconds.
Instead, when Mickael Pietrus, who apparently believes the best way to end a slump is to keep firing away, at last hit a pair of 3-pointers 38 seconds apart early in the fourth to bring the Celtics to within 61-59, one couldn't help but wonder whether he should get some of Pierce's minutes. He didn't -- Pierce came in for him at the 7:46 mark. Pietrus never saw the floor again, and Pierce did not score again. He was shut out in the fourth quarter.
Maybe he has a miracle in store for Game 3 -- even Lakers fans know never to fully write him off, even if (or especially when) there's a wheelchair involved -- but given the nature of his injury it's hard to envision him being much more than a facilitator or a decoy. And the Sixers damn well know it.
While Collins wouldn't admit to as much beyond praising Iguodala, it appeared the Sixers recognized that Pierce wouldn't be able to hurt them and instead concentrated on shutting down Kevin Garnett.
You'll may hear on your radio today that Garnett didn't play well; disregard those basketball bandwagoneers. Dealing with double-teams virtually the entire game, Garnett entered the fourth quarter with just four points. After hitting 5 of 7 shots down the stretch, he finished with 15, as well as 12 rebounds. While the frustrating memory of his performance for many will be the offensive foul he was called for while setting a screen with 12 seconds left -- a legitimate whistle, if unusual for that point in the game -- it was a performance that should be remembered well.
"We tried to put some strength on him," said Collins. "We tried to take away his rhythm shots. They do such a great job of getting you strung out and throwing back to him. "all those shots he catches in rhythm, he doesn't miss. So it was really trying to dismiss the efficiency and timing. And our guys were able to do it. He was still 15 and 12, but we made him work hard for his points and that is critical.''
Conversely, Rivers didn't think the Celtics worked hard enough to get Garnett the ball, particularly in the early stages.
"We didn't go to him, plain and simple,'' Rivers said. "We never established the post. The second unit established the post during one stretch in the fourth quarter. I really thought we started out the first four minutes playing the game the right way, moving the ball. We are a great ball-movement team, a next-pass team. I thought everybody was trying to beat their defense rather than playing the way we played the other night. We chased shots as a group."
Rivers may be disappointed, but he cannot be terribly surprised. When your surest scorer is rendered an afterthought, chasing shots suddenly looks like a reasonable way to fill the void.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.