Paul Pierce sharper than ever

BOSTON -- The only thing missing was a shoulder shrug.

Paul Pierce, unconscious in the third quarter of the Boston Celtics' 103-91 triumph over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at TD Garden, had connected on back-to-back 3-pointers, making him 6-for-6 from beyond the arc on the night.

The final one, a splash from the left wing, capped a stretch in which Pierce single-handedly carried the Celtics on a 12-2 run and had Boston out front by 18. Pierce would finish with 40 points on ridiculously efficient 13-of-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block over 33:36.

But as the Boston bench tripped all over itself after his sixth triple of the night, Pierce simply jogged backward to the defensive end. There was no glance at the scorer's table, no guilty smile, no Michael Jordan-like shrug.

Maybe it's appropriate. Nothing Pierce does should really surprise us anymore.

At 35 years (and 67 days), Pierce became the oldest Celtics player in team history to score 40 points in regulation. Larry Bird went off for 49 points in a double-overtime game at the age of 35 (and 99 days) back in 1992 -- which just happened to be the same season of Jordan's shoulder shrug after making six consecutive 3-pointers in the first half of a Finals game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Bird retired after that 1992 season; Pierce (finally) offered a sly smile when informed of his age-defying feat on Wednesday night.

"I think maybe I can play a little longer than anticipated," said Pierce. "Who knows?"

Pressed on the topic, the Celtics' captain added, "Another one for the records, I guess. I've been here long enough. Maybe I'll go for 50 now."

Who would doubt him? (Shoulder shrugs.) Certainly, not anyone who saw Wednesday's effort.

Pierce erupted for 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting (with three trifectas) in the third quarter alone. His night might have ended there had Boston's bench not allowed Cleveland to whittle the lead to two in the fourth quarter.

Pierce ripped off the warm-ups and added eight fourth-quarter points to help seal an absolute must-have victory for the previously floundering Celtics.

It turns out Pierce wasn't in a very smiley mood, anyhow. Boston came into Wednesday's contest on a three-game losing streak in which the Celtics lost by double digits at the Rockets, Spurs and Bulls.

Plane troubles kept Boston grounded in Chicago overnight and the team took an afternoon flight back to the area for the tail end of a back-to-back. Pierce and Kevin Garnett walked into the arena together less than 90 minutes before tipoff, but it was clear Pierce was all business.

"We walked in tonight and I could tell, just because it was a long day, that [Pierce] felt kind of down in the dumps," said Garnett. "After the game I told him, 'You need to feel more down in the dumps a little more often.'"

Garnett added: "Paul was on fire tonight, man. Paul had a flashback to like '03-04 or something. It was good to see, though."

For Pierce, it was the 24th 40-plus-point night of his career. While he went off for 43 against the Knicks on April 17 of this year, you'd have to go back to Feb. 15, 2006, to find his previous regular-season 40-plus effort (a 50-point effort against the then-LeBron James-led Cavaliers). Only seven times since the 2003-04 season has Pierce gone off for 40 or more.

Pierce turned back the clock, and Cleveland could offer nothing but shoulder shrugs when asked how to slow Pierce down.

"There was nothing that we could do with him tonight," said Cavs coach Byron Scott. "Sometimes a guy like that, a future Hall of Famer, sometimes they get it going and there's really nothing much you can do. Paul got it going. He hit some shots tonight that I hadn't seen him hit, or play that way in a while."

Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving summed it up succinctly: "He got hot. They kept feeding him. That's about it."

There was an audible groan inside the Garden when Pierce missed a 3-pointer with 6:18 to play in the game -- his only miss beyond the arc. For the previous 42 minutes, he was practically perfect.

"I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could," said Pierce. "When you've been on [a losing streak] like that, you want to come home, do whatever you can to get a win. It's a make-or-miss league. Who knew I was going to come in and shoot the ball the way I did? But the one thing I could control was how hard I was going to play today and the effort I was going to put out."

What does it feel like to enter that can't-miss zone?

"It's hard to really explain it," said Pierce. "You feel good, you feel like everything you do, everything you shoot is going to go in. The rim, it looks a lot bigger than it normally is. You want the ball."

Rivers noted that Pierce's shot is so unconventional, the coach can never get a read on when the captain might explode for a big night. Rivers went so far as to crack, "No kid should watch [his shooting]."

The big offensive effort, and the jokes about his unconventional scoring approach, had Pierce waxing nostalgic about his development as an NBA scorer.

"When I first got into the league, I always asked myself if I wanted to be good, or if I wanted to be great," said Pierce. "Every time I stepped up and worked on my game. That's the question I asked: How good did I want to be? ... Working on my craft as hard as I could because I wanted to be one of the great players. And that's the same hard work I feel I've put in over the years."