BOSTON -- Paul Pierce had that feeling. No, not the one in which he's sure everything is going in and he radiates heat. This one was the one in which he was sure he had stolen something -- and lived to tell about it.
"Sometimes it's good to sneak one out,'' Pierce said as he romped down the corridor leading to the Celtics' locker room after Boston's 84-80 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
Following right behind him, a team official quipped, "This is a present under the tree."
Indeed it was. The Sixers, the same group who had been vaporized the night before in Chicago 121-76, deserved a better fate in this one.
They held the Celtics to a season low in shooting percentage -- by a significant margin. They held the Celtics to 84 points, matching Boston's season low in points.
They were aggressive, nearly sending commentator Tommy Heinsohn into cardiac arrest with a 31-21 advantage in free throw attempts (it was 29-7 after three quarters). They held their own on the boards, turned it over only 13 times and had two chances to tie the game in the final minute.
Their coach, Doug Collins, told them after the game, "I couldn't be prouder of you. You showed me who you are." And his team lost.
Meanwhile, Celtics coach Doc Rivers probably is counting down the minutes until the team's plane leaves Thursday morning for Orlando, Fla., so he can go home and rest on the hammock. His team won its 14th in a row, improving to 23-4, and what you can take away from that is that good teams usually find a way to win when they're (A) playing bad, (B) playing inferior teams and (C) playing at home. Those three factors had to converge like the celestial bodies in a total lunar eclipse. They did -- and the Celtics took advantage.
Good teams do that.
"We weren't very good,'' Rivers said. "But we won the game. And that's the only thing you'll take from this game -- is that we won. Our group is so used to grinding out games, and they won. Other than that, I thought Philly did everything right to win the game."
Shaquille O'Neal is fond of saying that the Celtics really haven't lost any games -- they've thrown four away. (Or, as Robert Parish used to say, "donated four to the cause.") Well, the counter can be true, as well. Some of those 23 wins could be construed as, well, presents under the tree. The Sixers feel two of them fall into that category: Wednesday night's game and the Celtics' 102-101 victory in Philly on Dec. 9, secured on a late Kevin Garnett lay-in.
Consider what the Celtics did in this one and still, somehow, emerged with a win. (Had they been playing a team with any kind of offensive star, things might have been different. Philly has no one to close games like this, unless your idea of a closer is Andre Iguodala, who is nearer Heathcliff Slocumb than Mariano Rivera.)
Pierce had one of those nights in which nothing went according to Hoyle. He bricked his first seven shots, finished 4-of-15 and ended up with 11 points. (He's had a pair of eight-point submissions, so it wasn't his low for the season.) He was in foul trouble. He got nailed with a technical. Don't look for a second straight player of the week for him after this one.
There was the horrific team shooting of 38.8 percent. The Celtics lead the NBA in shooting at 50.7 percent -- and that's after the Sixers abomination. Their previous low for the season was 43.7 percent against the Bobcats on Dec. 11, a game the Celtics won by 31 points and spent the last half playing H-O-R-S-E with Luke Harangody and Von Wafer in starring roles. Wednesday's game marked only the 11th time in 27 games that the team has not shot at least 50 percent.
Then there were the free throws. There appeared to be smoke rising from the Celtics' television table, where Heinsohn sits. Collins had told his team to be aggressive, "to hit them before they hit you. And I mean that in a good way." His team listened.
The Sixers attempted 15 free throws in the second quarter. The Celtics attempted none. The Sixers attempted 12 free throws in the third quarter. The Celtics attempted four. It was in that third quarter that both Pierce and Garnett got called for technical fouls, 101 seconds apart.
"I was frustrated,'' Pierce admitted.
So, too, was Garnett, who salvaged a tough shooting night with a big-time block at the end of the game on Iguodala.
"It was more of a mental grind,'' KG said. "But Doc told us to grind through it."
Rivers gave the refs a pass, sort of, saying he thought the Celtics' frustration was due more to the fact that they were not ready to play and thus had to spend 48 minutes in the dentist's chair. His team hadn't played since Sunday afternoon. The Sixers had played the night before. Or, a team wearing their uniforms had shown up in Chicago and left town after the game.
Everything was in Boston's favor for this one. And that explains the continuing wonderment of the NBA. How could a team lose by 45 points and then turn around and nearly beat the team with the best home record in the league? A team that entered the game 12 games behind the Celtics?
But the wonderment only goes so far. There was no "It's A Wonderful Life" conclusion for the Sixers in this one.
"We're finding ways to win, any kind of way, and that just shows the versatility of the team this year," Pierce said. "We've won games in the 100s, we've won games in the 80s. So we've got to win differently every night. That's the way it's going to be."
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.