Pierce turns back the clock

MIAMI -- Following his last-second heroics in Boston's Game 3 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night, Celtics captain Paul Pierce was asked if he could recall the last time he hit a winning shot.

Pierce hesitated for a moment as he thought about the question, his mind likely racing back through the entire 2009-10 slate and coming up empty, before noting it was last year's first-round playoff series against the Bulls, a Game 5 victory at the TD Garden.

OK, but even that came with a few seconds left on the clock. What about an honest-to-goodness, walk-off moment?

Evidently, you'd have to go back to Dec. 9, 2006, well before the Big Three even united, and before Pierce hit rock bottom, as the Celtics endured a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak later that season. In that contest, Pierce buried a 22-footer over Jason Kidd for a 92-90 triumph over the New Jersey Nets.

According to the wizards at ESPN Stats & Information, Pierce has only three such walk-off moments during the regular season since the 2002-03 campaign (the others being Nov. 10, 2004, versus Portland and March 7, 2006, versus Washington).

Once regarded as one of the deadliest shooters with the game on the line -- after that New Jersey win, Pierce had six career game-winners in the final seconds, better than Kobe Bryant to that point -- it was starting to feel like forever since Pierce potted the winner as the buzzer sounded.

According to the folks at Elias Sports Bureau, Pierce was 0-for-2 on final shots in situations to win or tie a game in the last 10 seconds of regulation or overtime this season, and that doesn't include moments like an overtime loss to Houston, in which Pierce didn't even get a final shot off before the clock expired in regulation.

Heck, some were starting to lament when the Celtics even ran their final shot through Pierce. The isolation play had become as predictable as the result: A miss. Some wondered if we'd ever see vintage Pierce again.

He returned Friday night. Pierce scored 22 of his team-high 32 points in the second half, drilling a buzzer-beating 21-foot jumper from the right wing to lift Boston to a 100-98 triumph and a commanding 3-0 series advantage over the Heat.

For Pierce, it was a reminder of how far he's come in a difficult season. The captain sat out a total of 11 games, including 10 for a trio of maladies, and another for late-season rest.

"This has been one of my more trying seasons, to tell you the truth," said the man appropriately nicknamed "The Truth." "I've never been through this much in my career. I had surgery [twice to drain an infection in his right knee in late December], then my sprained [left mid-foot suffered in a collision with Caron Butler in early February], and then after that I sprained my thumb [against the Lakers on Feb. 18]. It was very trying.

"I'm used to playing through injuries, but at this point of my career, at this age, I don't heal as quickly as I used to," added the 32-year-old Pierce. "I learned a lot about myself and a lot about my body going through these type of situations and these injuries. I need to take some more rest, I'm not 24- or 25-year-old Paul Pierce. I don't bounce back as quick. I need to allow myself to heal. That's why I struggled [during the 2009-10 season], I had a few inconsistencies in the middle of the season because of [injuries]."

Pierce feels better now, even as he deals with a temperamental right shoulder prone to flare-ups due to what he has described as a possible pinched nerve. Pierce originally dubbed it a "stinger" after suffering the original injury against San Antonio in late March, but it happened again two days later at practice, and again sent him to the floor in agony in Game 1, precipitating a fracas that left Kevin Garnett suspended after he threw an elbow to the head of Miami's Quentin Richardson.

Pierce has been quiet in this series, registering only 29 total points in the first two games on 7-for-19 shooting. After a quick start to Game 3, he went cold in the second quarter, missing both shots he took and generating only one of his 10 first-half points.

But the second half belonged to Pierce.

With Boston clinging to a one-point lead with 78 seconds to play in the third frame, Pierce scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer off an isolation play to end the quarter for an 80-72 advantage.

It was only a preview.

When Miami rallied ahead, Pierce led the Celtics back. When he and Dorell Wright traded 3-pointers with around 90 seconds to play, it tied the game at 98 and set up his heroics.

Dwyane Wade missed a 3-point attempt with 11.7 seconds to go and Boston called timeout to set up a final play, while Wade was helped from the floor with leg cramps. He would watch the final moments from the bench.

After Ray Allen missed on the previous possession, Pierce and his coach admitted that the captain pretty much demanded the ball. Doc Rivers drew up a couple of options, particularly if the Heat attempted to foul, but everyone in Boston knew exactly how the final play was going to unfold.

And most were probably bracing for overtime.

Instead, Pierce let the clock run down and when the foul Miami had to give never came, he created just enough space between himself and Wright to drain the midrange jumper at the buzzer. Teammates spilled onto the floor to mob Pierce as the Miami crowd filed out in silence and disbelief as their team fell in an all-but-hopeless 0-3 series hole.

"I was ready for them to come foul and I was going to try to get a shot up, but they didn't come," Pierce said. "I just got to my little sweet spot on the right elbow and got a good look at the rim.

"It was a tight game and I was feeling pretty good about my game, especially in my midrange. I just wanted to have the ball in my hands and be aggressive."

Said the 6-foot-9 Wright: "I gave him some space to close out on, but he made a tough shot."

Pierce's teammates felt good with the game in his hands.

"We put our faith in his hands that last shot," Allen said. "He came through for us. It's great to have somebody that can make shots like that at the buzzer."

Echoed Kendrick Perkins: "That's the Truth. He lives for games like this. I expected him to do that tonight. He was attacking and his jumper was falling."

But those winning shots hadn't fallen in a while for Pierce. Not since 2006 say the statistics. But his coach never lost faith.

"He is a star," Rivers said. "He never loses his confidence. The play before that Ray missed, Paul glanced over and you could tell he wanted the ball. You always like when your players do that. ... He hasn't played great in the first two games, but you could feel before this game he was starting to get his rhythm.

"And when he gets his rhythm. He is really good."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.