BOSTON -- He knew. The game was in overtime, every possession was magnified, focus was at a premium -- and Paul Pierce knew. He dropped a free throw with 13.3 seconds remaining, then raised his arms as the TD Garden crowd gave him a standing ovation.
He knew he needed 23 to get there, and this was No. 23. Somehow, amid all the clamor, he knew. Don't think for a minute these guys don't know what they need to reach a certain milestone, be it 20,000 points or a triple-double. They do.
"Players know,'' said Pierce, who ended up with 28 points in a hard-fought, beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder, 105-102 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. "Whether they admit it or not is another thing. But they know."
Fortunately for the Celtics, Pierce also got points 20,001, 20,002, 20,003, 20,004 and 20,005, all of them from the free throw line, all of them in the final 13.3 seconds of overtime and all of them very much needed. The freebies (Pierce was 11-of-11 from the line) enabled the Celtics to escape after blowing a six-point lead in the final 80 seconds of regulation.
"We felt we needed not to execute for the final four or five minutes, so [Pierce] could get it,'' cracked coach Doc Rivers, who has overseen a lot of those 20,005. "We were awful down the stretch. All of us."
But the uneven play, the earlier-in-the-day distraction involving Kevin Garnett and Charlie Villanueva (whom KG supposedly called a "cancer patient,'' which Garnett denied) and the threat of a home loss to a 1-3 team all became secondary as Pierce reached a point total that puts him in pretty exclusive company.
(Actually, his 19,977 had him in pretty exclusive company before the game, but it doesn't quite have the same ring as 20,000, does it?)
Only two other players in the long and storied history of the Boston franchise have scored 20,000 points in one uniform, and they are among the select few in any discussion of a Celtics Mount Rushmore: John Havlicek and Larry Bird. Six others in team history have reached the 20,000-point mark while wearing Celtics green and white: Bird, Havlicek, Robert Parish, Gary Payton, Ray Allen and Garnett.
Pierce becomes the 36th player in NBA history to reach that mark, and he was a bit wistful and reflective in thinking that (A) he actually did it and (B) he did it while still wearing No. 34 for the Celtics. He admitted that not that long ago, both of those things were anything but a sure bet.
"Five years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed I'd be scoring 20,000 points in a Celtics uniform,'' Pierce said. "The team was going in a [bad] direction. I was a disgruntled player at the time. To be here now and to be talking about this feat is an incredible moment for me."
When it's all said and done, Pierce might not pass Havlicek as the Celtics' all-time leading scorer (he's 6,360 behind Hondo and 1,786 behind Bird), but he already is establishing a reputation as arguably the best pure scorer the franchise has seen. Former GM Chris Wallace used to refer to Pierce as a "volume scorer," and no truer description has ever been uttered. As they say in today's hoop parlance, Pierce can "score the ball." (Not sure what else you would score, but that's the new line.)
Pierce is making a case for inclusion in that short list of Celtics ultra-elites, which was why he was so adamant and vocal this past spring about getting that second ring. He knows that is how the great Celtics are measured, not by individual stats.
But neither Bird nor Havlicek had to put up with what Pierce had to put up with, starting with the maniacal Rick Pitino as a rookie and continuing downhill, marked by the brutal 2006-07 season, when he was injured and missed 35 games, all the while wondering whether he would ever be back in Boston.
So many of those 20,000 points had to be scored on bad teams for the Celtics to simply compete before Allen and Garnett arrived in the summer of 2007. Pierce didn't get to the playoffs until his fourth season. He was on a playoff team that won 36 games. And when Pierce was in his late 20s, a span during which so many players are in their primes, the Celtics submitted consecutive seasons of 33 and 24 wins.
As he stood at the line with 13.3 seconds left in overtime, acknowledging the cheers, Pierce said he found it "tough to swallow. I was just thinking about all the years I've been here, playing with one team, and you know the fans having seen my ups and downs throughout the years and sticking with me. It means a lot to me, and I'm not going to downplay it."
Nor should he. But what he also said was that the points meant so much more in that the Celtics managed to pull out a win. They didn't play all that well in a very uneven game (read: horribly officiated), but they are 4-1, even if their past four games have come against teams that are a combined 3-14.
Rivers was right about their late breakdown; Carlos Delfino drove to the basket for a layup to tie the game at the end of regulation and looked as though he were running a play in his driveway by himself. No one stopped him -- or even tried to.
Pierce then stepped up in overtime, scoring 12, four coming on layups and eight coming at the line. One of those layups was on a pretty pass from Rajon Rondo, who dazzled once again with 17 points, 15 assists and 8 rebounds (but, alas, 6 turnovers.) The other Pierce layup was off a nifty pass by Garnett, who finished strong with 13 points and 8 rebounds. Ray Allen had 23.
But this was a night for Pierce, a night he knew was coming but one that, not that long ago, he had every reason to believe would never happen in Boston. He's now in the company of Bird and Havlicek, and, as he noted afterward, "Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with them is pretty special."
He's had a long, sometimes painful and occasionally bizarre history in Boston. But he belongs in any conversation of Celtics all-time greats. He did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it. Maybe that's why he knew after all.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.