MIAMI – The Celtics knew from the moment Game 2 ended that they would see everything the Miami Heat had left in Game 3. They talked about it, analyzed it and were sure they were ready for it.
“We said before the game don’t expect it to be given to us, don’t expect any calls,” Paul Pierce said. “The thing is, if it’s a tight game we had to keep our poise. We don’t need no technicals. We don’t need to be jibber-jawing with the other team. I was just happy with the way we kept our poise.”
There were moments when they could have let it slip away. In fact they almost did early in the fourth quarter when a nine-point lead frittered away to nothing. It was this moment that the regular season Celtics would have shrugged and moved on to play another day.
But now, finally, they seem to be the team that everyone thought they were. Pierce hit a game-winner with no time on the clock for a 100-98 win and suddenly the Celtics are back in the discussion. They are up 3-0 on the Heat, who are just about ready to turn the page and look ahead to free agent summer when they can finally build a team around Dwyane Wade.
The Celtics have more work to do, of course. Not just in this series, but for however long they continue to play in the postseason. But this was a test and they passed it. Finally.
This is what Doc Rivers said Friday morning after the team’s shootaround:
“I told our guys, I was honest with them, we haven’t done well in these situations. We really haven’t. Every time we played well in the regular season we’ve let our guard down so we’ll find out our mental resolve and our toughness tonight.”
There were many heroes for the Celtics on this night. Rajon Rondo played almost 44 minutes and finished with 17 points, eight assists and a handful of huge offensive rebounds. Kevin Garnett, who was booed lustily throughout the game, made big shots down the stretch.
Also not to be lost in the postgame celebration was the 25 points that Ray Allen scored, which helped off-set the individual brilliance of Wade who was simply sensational until his leg cramped up.
But the night belonged to Pierce and he leads off our three things:
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
The following is a true story: Walking back to the interview room a pair of reporters are discussing whether Pierce waited too long to make his move for his game-winner, when who should appear but Warren Sapp, of all people.
“I thought he waited too long!” the QB Killa said.
He wasn’t alone.
“He waited a long time,” Rivers said. “We told him last shot, he did, but I don’t know if he meant to do that. I wasn’t sure he got it off when he first shot it.”
Pierce, of course, had no doubt.
“Coach said, ‘Don’t leave any time on the clock,’” Pierce said. “You don’t want to give Dwyane Wade a chance to get another shot off because you know he’s made incredible shots. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. He’s an incredible player. I wanted to leave no time on the clock. When I looked up and there was two seconds I just decided to make my move and go to my shot. They gave me a little space and got to my little sweet spot on the right elbow and got a good look with no time.”
On the previous possession, Rivers put the ball in Rondo’s hands and had two options: one for Pierce and one for Allen. Both were open but Rondo found Allen in the corner and he got a great look.
“You could see Rondo decided early,” Rivers said. “Ray had an opening. He got a great look at it. We liked that shot.”
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the pass hit Allen in the palm and it threw off his timing just enough that he wasn’t able to make the shot. But after Wade missed a pull-up 3, there was time for one more play.
Rivers inserted Michael Finley into the game, which put four shooters on the floor and put Rondo under the basket, which made it impossible to leave him alone. But the call was always for Pierce.
The only question was whether Miami would foul, since the Heat had one to give. But Rivers had a contingency for that, as well.
“We had two plays called just in case they fouled,” he said. “What we tried to get is Paul facing the basket because it’s very difficult to commit a foul when you’re facing. If you reach and grab, he’ll throw the ball up [at the basket]. The whole play was for Paul, but we wanted activity.”
As it turned out the Heat didn’t foul and that let Pierce go to work. The right elbow has become his “sweet spot” as he’s called it, but ironically in a season of injuries it was an old ailment that created this move.
Pierce had long favored a step-back jumper as he goes left, but a bone bruise in 2008 forced him to look for a new alternative.
“I worked on going right and it started feeling more and more comfortable,” Pierce said. “It’s been good to me.”
Indeed it has. As he maneuvered his way, Pierce felt Dorrell Wright giving him room and that’s when he made his move.
“I saw him backing up, backing up,” Pierce said. “I was ready for him to come foul, but he didn’t come in. I just got to my little sweet spot on the right elbow.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT PIERCE
There have been knee surgeries (plural), an elbow injury, a stinger that won’t stop stinging and an ankle injury.
“This has been one of my more trying seasons, to tell you the truth,” Pierce said. “I’ve never been injured this much in my career. It was like back-to-back-to-back. At this point in my career at this stage, I don’t heal as quickly as I used to heal. I learned a lot about myself this year.”
The joke that gets made every time Pierce goes down with another ailment is, “Bring out the wheelchair,” a reference to the infamous moment in the 2008 NBA Finals when ABC’s cameras filmed him in one after he hurt his knee. Moments later Pierce was running back on the court as if nothing had happened.
In Game 1 of this series, which feels like another lifetime ago, Quentin Richardson made his comments about Pierce faking injuries, which despite their bad blood, only goes to show just how far the perception has grown.
That’s unfortunate because Pierce has always played through his injuries. This isn’t exactly J.D. Drew were talking about here. If anything, the Celtics have leaned too heavily on Pierce’s willingness to play when maybe he shouldn’t.
“We brought him back took early and that was our mistake,” Rivers said. “It’s held him back. Late in the year he didn’t have his legs under him. But we were playing him minutes and going to him knowing he may struggle, but it would give him a chance to get right by playoffs, and I’m glad we did that.”
One thing you can never take away from Pierce is his ability and his confidence.
“He’s a star and the reason I’m saying that is he never loses his confidence,” Rivers said. “The play before the Ray play he glanced over and was like, ‘let’s go.’ He wanted it. You always like when you’re players do that.”
“It was a tight game and I was feeling pretty well, especially in the mid-range,” Pierce said of the moment. “[Rivers] knows I’m responsible with the ball. My teammates made that extra pass. Rondo made a conscious effort to find me, all the guys set picks for me.”
Pierce finished with 32 points and eight rebounds and all of them were important. But none were bigger than the last two, and no player was more important for the win than Pierce.
It seems that the Atlanta Hawks will linger long in the minds of the Celtics veterans. Garnett mentioned it during the week and so did Allen. Friday night it was Pierce’s turn to bring up that series when the Celtics had gone up 2-0 with two decisive victories over Atlanta and couldn’t get a win on the Hawks home court.
“I think we learned a lot from the last couple of years,” Pierce said. “You can get out to a 2-0 lead and you can’t just get comfortable because it’s still a series. You haven’t played a team on their home court and it can very much go to Game 7.”
The Celtics have won big road games since that Hawks series. They closed out Detroit in Game 6 at the Palace that season and also went up 3-1 on the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals in Los Angeles.
But they had never gone up 2-0 and gone on the road and won a Game 3 on an opponents’ home court before Friday night. That doesn’t mean it’s over. No team with Wade on the opposing side is ever truly finished until all the games are done, but it’s close.
“We’ve just got to keep playing,” Rivers said. “I told your guys, I don’t want to hear about that. You focus on the process, the results will happen. Don’t even pay any attention.”
That’s why he’s the coach, but for the Celtics winning this game in the manner they did was all the more important because they haven’t done it with this team before.
“I got to tell you, in the first half I said I don’t if we’re going to win or lose this game, but we were here,” Rivers said. “We were focused. At times I thought we were anxious and it led to some mistakes. But you like that. That was good for us.”
The lessons of the past are just that; past. This Celtics team is only now beginning to discover its true self and they like what they see.