Captain navigates rocky waters

Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire

Forced to watch the final moments from the sideline, Paul Pierce celebrates a Game 3 triumph.BOSTON -- For the third time in five games, Paul Pierce was forced into spectator mode, assigned to the pine after accruing his sixth personal foul in the waning moments of the Celtics' effort to stay alive in a series.

Boston managed to emerge with a heart-pounding 93-91 overtime victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Sunday night, but things looked rather dire when Pierce was called for an offensive foul less than 40 seconds into the extra period -- his sixth of the evening -- and was relegated to cheerleading mode.

The Celtics were still coming to terms with the fact that they squandered an 18-point halftime lead and only managed 28 total points over the course of the third and fourth quarters. They needed defense, of course, but putting the ball in the bucket was also a chief concern, given how poorly the previous 24 minutes had gone. And Pierce, who scored a team-high 23 points and put in 18 of those in the first half, was still looking like one of the team's best options. Until he wasn't allowed to be anymore.

"I felt bad for the team," Pierce said. "When you know you're so important to the team, you feel like you let them down. Sometimes it's out of your control and you've just got to keep pulling for them. That's the [third] time I've fouled out [in the playoffs]. The stakes are high right now, so I'm just trying to be as aggressive as I can, trying to stay away from the mistakes, but I've got to do a better job of staying in the game."

Pierce's only comfort was seeing Miami's best player forced to exit just a few short minutes later. LeBron James picked up his sixth personal with 1:51 to play on a drive against Mickael Pietrus, and, like Pierce, couldn't do anything more to help his club on the court.

"It kind of evened out the playing field, I thought," Pierce said. It was good to see that."

"We both were aggressive, we both got called for two offensive fouls apiece, I guess. It was a cut, scratch, grab, hold, elbow type of game. Nobody was going to give an edge. So, I'd say it's a classic. You rarely see that. You rarely see that, when two star players foul out."

Sure, both teams were each down a star player, but it was Boston who had the somewhat unfortunate, but suddenly critical, advantage of having had to try and finish without Pierce before (he fouled out in Game 7 against the 76ers and earlier in this series against the Heat, in Game 2). Rajon Rondo ended up being the difference-maker with three of Boston's four points in overtime, but it was the mutual understanding between he, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen that the adversity of losing Pierce needed to be embraced and overcome, instead of run from.

"I told Kevin, 'It's time,'" said Rondo afterward. "We have to take the game over. I didn't look at Ray and tell him, but he knew what time it was. At that particular time in the game, when your leading scorer goes out, you have to step up and make plays. And that's what we did as a team."

The Celtics clung to life in Game 4, and, therefore, in the series, and if not for a stellar first half that saw them rack up 61 points, they'd probably be staring a 3-1 series hole in the face. But an 18-point first half lead, cut down a mere four points at intermission, gave them the cushion they needed to endure an offensively-challenged second half, and while Pierce can be dealt his fair share of criticisms for not being able to stay in the game, that sizable lead wouldn't have been possible without his offense over the first 24 minutes.

Pierce came out gunning, finding himself in easily his best first half shooting rhythm of the series. He knocked down his first jumper, scoring Boston's first points of the game, from the right wing, buried a 3-pointer from the left corner four minutes later, added another triple from the right wing shortly after that, and then drove through the lane and put in a layup, giving Boston an eight-point edge at the time. He polished off his first quarter effort with two free throws, bringing his total to 12, and helped the C's amass a 12-point edge heading into the second frame.

Six more points in the second quarter for Pierce helped the C's garner their largest lead of the evening, highlighted by him upfaking Dwyane Wade into a foul just inside the three-point arc on the right wing and somehow still throwing the jump shot in. He buried the free throw for a 58-40 Celtics edge.

His services in overtime would certainly have helped Boston's cause, but by that point, Pierce had at least done enough to have the Celtics in a position to win the game, and so they'll fight on with a pivotal Game 5 set for Miami.

Hopefully they'll have Pierce's services for as many minutes as that game lasts.