So, here was the situation. The Celtics had somehow managed to turn a 16-point lead into a one-point advantage with just 28 seconds left after not scoring a point for almost five minutes. A big reason for the scoring drought was an uncharacteristic off night from Ray Allen, who had made just two of the 11 shots he attempted and even (gasp) threw up an airball.
Paul Pierce had the ball way up at around the midcourt line. The Blazers had settled back into a zone and Doc Rivers called for a flat set, meaning everyone was stretched out as far as they could get.
“They just didn’t have enough guys because they were playing a 3-2 [zone], so there’s three guys at the top against a pick and roll,” Rivers explained. “We didn’t know who would be open. We just thought one guy had to be.”
The guy was Allen and as Pierce began to make his move to his customary sweet spot he saw Andre Miller cheat over to the elbow to take away the drive. Pierce didn’t think about Allen’s cold shooting. He didn’t think about putting his head down and going 1-on-3. He just thought, as he said later, “I see Ray Allen wide open. It’s a no-brainer, I’m going to get it to him.”
And as the ball found Allen he did what he has done so many times before.
“I’ll take mine all day long in that spot anywhere on the floor,” Allen said. “I don’t care how many I made before.”
Allen’s shot was true, which essentially meant the ballgame. The Celtics won their fifth straight, 99-95, and the Blazers lost their fifth in a row. (Click here for a full recap).
Just two teams going in opposite directions in early December, but there’s all kinds of things you can take away from that final sequence. Things like trust and confidence and all the other little things that have been built up with this team over the last three-plus years they have been together.
This is what makes the Celtics the Celtics and what gives them an edge in just about every game they play together. Enjoy this team while it’s still around because it truly doesn’t get any better than that in this league.
Here are three more things to take away from Wednesday night:
PAUL PIERCE IS GETTING BETTER WITH AGE
“Like a fine wine,” Pierce said.
He’s 33 years old, which isn’t exactly young in the NBA, but it’s not ancient either. As the years have rolled by, Pierce has gotten better. He’s gotten smarter. He’s become harder to guard even, because Pierce very rarely beats himself anymore. His turnovers, long the only chink in his offensive armor, are way down this year and he’s shooting the ball at an incredible rate.
Consider Wednesday night’s game: Pierce took 11 shots, made nine of them, hit four of five from 3-point range and converted all six of his free throw attempts. He scored 28 points on 11 shots. Calling that effort efficient is like saying a Prius gets a few miles per gallon.
“It has something to do with practice habits, my preparation,” Pierce said. “The things a lot of people don’t see, the hours I spend in the gym. The older I get the more I put into my preparation. I’m becoming a more mature player each and every year.”
Pierce is now shooting 53 percent from the floor and 46 percent from beyond the arc. Add in 84 percent free throw shooting and you can make the argument that there is no more efficient scorer among wing forwards in the league.
Pierce is quick to credit the experiences he’s had around his veteran teammates with helping him reach these advanced levels in the latter part of his career and there’s definitely something to do that. But Pierce remains a true genuine basketball creation.
“Paul’s amazing,” Rivers said. “Really, if you ever are completely bored and just study the shots, he releases the ball from every different angle. Most shooters, like Ray Allen, release the ball from the same spot every single time. Paul is like a pitcher who can throw sidearm, [overhand], it’s just amazing. The one shot he made in the corner looked like he shot it with two hands, but that’s just Paul. He’s a professional scorer.”
MEET YOUR NEW LOCKDOWN DEFENDER: MARQUIS DANIELS
Has anyone on the Celtics had a stranger career arc than Marquis Daniels? He burst on the scene as an undrafted free agent who averaged 16 points a game as a rookie in the playoffs with the Mavericks. After five mostly uneventful seasons, he wound up averaging 13 points a game with the Pacers.
Then he arrived in Boston, where he was asked to do a little bit of everything. And he did until he injured his thumb and then basically fell off the map. His return to the Celtics didn’t exactly look secure, but once Tony Allen signed with Memphis there was an opening and he is once again filling the role of utility man, as Pierce calls him.
Almost nightly someone approaches Daniels and asks him if he is more confident this year and every night Daniels patiently responds that no, he never lost his confidence.
“I’m the same,” he said. “Just healthy.”
On a team full of emotional powder kegs, Daniels keeps things simple. “Learn to control what you can and the rest, you know, let it be,” he said.
Daniels is content with his role, which changes on a nightly basis. “You never know,” he said. “Some nights it’s score, some nights it’s play defense. Whatever it is, you got to be ready to do whatever.”
What the Celtics want him to do now is become the defensive stopper on the perimeter that they lost when Allen went to Memphis and Delonte West broke his wrist.
“The offensive stuff I believe will be there,” Rivers said before the game. “With him I think he can be a great defender, not a good defender, and that’s another level that he hasn’t been before. Last couple of games he’s been off the charts and I think he’s starting to see that he can do it.”
Informed of that bit of praise, Daniels shrugged. “All coaches expect the best out of you,” he said.
Rivers put Daniels on Brandon Roy for the first six minutes of the fourth quarter to give Pierce a break and he held his own, which did not escape Pierce’s attention.
“'Quis has really been stepping up in that department,” Pierce said. “He’s really taking a lot of pressure off me and Ray. He’s our utility man and that’s what we ask him to do.”
THE CELTICS SHOOTING IS OFF THE CHARTS
Here’s the amazing thing about the Celtics' team shooting percentage, which after last night stood at 51 percent: The lowest-rated field goal percentage among the top seven players in the rotation belongs to Ray Allen at 47 percent.
Shaquille O’Neal obviously helps the cause at a mind-boggling 68 percent, but Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis are all shooting 50 percent or better from the floor.
There are so many things that go into those numbers, from Rondo’s uncanny ability to put the ball in a shooter’s hands at exactly the right spot to their fantastic shot selection -- they have attempted fewer 3-pointers than every team in the league.
They are also playing from the inside-out, as Rivers calls it. They lead the NBA in field goal percentage at the rim, according to Hoop Data’s numbers, and most of that is coming without a true low-post presence, although Garnett has been much better in the post this year than last.
“Let’s be honest,” Rivers said. “Kevin just didn’t have it in him a lot last year, post-wise. The other part is Paul. We got him back on the post.”
But it’s not any one thing. The Celtics are, and always will be, a defensive team first but this has gone long enough to where it can no longer be discounted as an early-season fluke. They are also a terrific offensive team, and the only thing that can slow them down is turnovers.
That’s how they shot 61 percent in the first half and were behind by a point. Their offense failed them during one stretch, which just happened to occur in the final five minutes of the game, but did anyone really think Ray Allen wouldn’t drain a wide-open game-clinching shot?