In Sunday's 85-82 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Celtics leaned on Paul Pierce to close out the game in the fourth quarter. Against the Spurs on Thursday, it was the first 12 minutes that were most in need of Pierce's expertise, as the Celtics attempted to absorb San Antonio's opening haymaker and remain on their feet with Kevin Garnett once again buried on the bench in foul trouble.
Pierce proved equal to the task, as he scored 11 of his 21 points in the opening frame on 4-of-5 shooting, to go along with six rebounds and three assists, as the Celtics countered a 33-point opening frame from the Spurs by dropping 31 points of their own. Defensive purists won't appreciate the results of the quarter, but with Garnett forced to exit the game not even three minutes in, it was more important for the Celtics to simply hang in there, absorb some punches, and regroup once Garnett was able to get back in the fray.
"I thought the biggest point of the game was the beginning of the game when Kevin gets the two fouls," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after his club's 107-97 victory in San Antonio. "We held our ground, and that was terrific."
Realizing his team needed a catalyst, Pierce stepped up and scored nine of his 11 points after Garnett exited the game with his second foul.
"I thought Paul clearly carried us in the early going," said Rivers. "When Kevin went out, we needed scoring. It was Paul. Paul, early in the game, he took it over for us, and that's what he can do. So that was wonderful."
After assisting on a Rajon Rondo jump shot, Pierce lined up a 3-pointer from the top of the arc off of a feed from Allen. Less than two minutes later he rose up for a jump shot from the left elbow, which knotted things up at 17. He finished the quarter off with an offensive rebound and a putback off of a Rondo miss, followed by two free throws in the final seconds.
Pierce's 11-point effort counteracted the white and silver blur that was Tony Parker, who streaked up and down the court and through the lane with a blazing quickness. He routinely got past Rondo and shredded through Boston's interior defense, pacing the Spurs' opening quarter blitz with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, this while notching four assists. Without Pierce's effort, the Celtics could have easily been facing a double-digit first quarter deficit.
"I was kind of just trying to be everywhere," Pierce said. "I just wanted to get this win. I just wanted to provide energy to the game."
Pierce absorbed Monday's 107-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers harder than most and later called for quick reform with the playoffs fast approaching, saying his team needed to make up its mind about how it wanted to play. And like the best leaders always do, Pierce turned his words into actions by flirting with a triple-double against the Spurs with totals of 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting, 11 rebounds, and seven assists.
"Well, you knew Paul would [step up], because, when you speak up you have to be the one," said Rivers.
Added Pierce: "I don't like to lose. I wear it on my sleeve. It's not a good night for me when we lose, so this is a big win."
Perhaps more importantly, it was a team win. While Pierce was crucial at the beginning, and throughout, his teammates contributed outstanding efforts, all the way from Rajon Rondo who posted 22 points and 14 assists, to the returning Jermaine O'Neal, who notched five points and played solid defense in the paint in his first game action in nearly three months. Rivers praised the effort because so many people contributed, and Pierce was quick to point out that his teammates deserved praise, for his own efforts would have been for naught had they not contributed the way they did.
"I mean I can't do [anything] without my teammates," said Pierce. "I just try to go out and lead by example, and that's it. This is not a one man show. I've just got to continue to lead this team the way I lead, and that's about it. Hopefully everybody will fall into place and we can get back on track."
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com