Maybe it's because whenever the Celtics play the Hawks in meaningful game it's natural to immediately flash back to May 1988, the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the epic Larry Bird/Dominique Wilkins shootout in Game 7.
Maybe it's because as Paul Pierce grows older, your appreciation of his basketball IQ and the geometry of his game grows as large as his repertoire of moves. All the angles and elbows and step-throughs and fakes that help him earn two and three points at a time aren't as aesthetically pleasing as a Ray Allen three from the corner, but he can score in more ways and places on the court than any Celtic since Larry Legend, and probably including him.
Or maybe the biggest reason Pierce's instant-classic, 36-point, 14-rebound, 4-steal performance last night in Game 2 vs. Atlanta reminded me so much of a vintage Larry Bird tour-de-force was this:
Everyone knew he was going to have to be exceptional for his team to prevail. And he went out and delivered, leaving no doubt from the beginning.
Pierce had nine points before the blowhard P.A. announcer had finished screeching starting lineups. He scored 13 points in the fourth, and outscored the entire Hawks roster, 19-15, from late in the third quarter on after the Celtics had fallen behind by 11. He was extraordinary, unstoppable, a force of basketball nature. He was downright Larry-like.Yes, I know you can be convicted of blasphemy quickly around here for comparing anyone to Bird. I may have been on a few of those juries myself. Of course I'm not suggesting Pierce is Bird's equal, though the argument is becoming easier to make that Pierce belongs with him on the Celtics' all-time starting five. And I recognize that what unfolded last night lacks the magnitude of the Bird/'Nique win-or-go-home duel.
But this game wasn't more than a Josh Smith heave away from that in terms of importance. Had they lost, they'd be down 0-2 at home, Rajon Rondo would be under siege, and those who howled at midseason that Danny Ainge should have blown this team up would be coming out of the parquet.
Now? This series is over at 1-1, we've again been reminded why you never write off this core of players, and Rondo owes Pierce a Rolex or a Maybach whatever NBA players give each other in lieu of thank-you notes.
And there is one other characteristic of greatness that he shares with Bird: He lives for situations like last night's. If you've followed Pierce's career closely and made your own judgments, you probably had a decent clue that what happened was coming.
Kobe and LeBron can begrudgingly confirm he has a few big game pelts at their expense, and have we already forgotten his Game 3, 38-point, 14-for-19 shooting performance against the Knicks last postseason? And this is not a recent thing; he averaged 27.1 points per game during the 2002-03 postseason, and 24.1 the previous year when the Celtics went to the Eastern Conference Finals with a roster featuring Pierce, Antoine Walker, and 10 role players.
Pierce's supreme self-confidence is as important to his success as his ability to outmaneuver quicker defenders off the dribble, knock down a pull-up three, or score with either hand among the trees. When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived before the 2007-08 season, it eased Pierce of the burden of having to carry the team himself every night. But every once in a while, it's still a blast watching him do it. You may remember Bird doing the same.
Sometimes Pierce's confidence hurts his perception. It is the mind-set that makes him believe the Celtics' best option in last-shot situation is him dribbling the clock down at the top of the key. It can be maddening, particularly when Allen is healthy. But considering he's made his share of those shots, I'll take the tradeoff.
He believes in Paul Pierce.
After last night, is there really anyone left who doesn't?
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.