These are the moments Paul Pierce lives for.
The score was tied, the Celtics had possession and there was enough time for one final shot to steal a road win against one of the NBA’s elite clubs. In almost every similar situation previously, the ball has gone to Pierce, his teammates have cleared his side of the floor and the shifty veteran has gone to work for the inevitable, contested midrange jump shot.
Only this time, with the Celtics and Pacers knotted up and 23.6 seconds remaining at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Pierce assumed a very different role. Instead of taking the big shot, Pierce set the decisive screen to free Jeff Green for the game-winning layup. In doing so, Pierce and the Celtics did more than just earn an 83-81 win over Indiana. They changed the entire conversation regarding their place in the Eastern Conference playoff race from here on.
“Gutsy team win,” Pierce said immediately afterward. “This is one of the best wins of the year. Hopefully this can propel us the rest of the year going into the playoffs. Huge.”
Even a close loss would have been a statement for the Celtics. Hanging tough with the Pacers, who hold the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-best home record in the entire NBA, would have told the rest of the East that the Celtics could be a pesky force come playoff time. In beating Indiana, the discussion has to change. They are now 5-4 against the East’s four top teams (Miami, Indiana, New York and Brooklyn) with road wins over all of them except the Heat. Assuming the Celtics meet up with one of those four, they will be a tough first-round out for somebody.
The Celtics do not have Rajon Rondo, but they still have Doc Rivers. Nobody draws up plays out of time outs better than Rivers, who scribbled down a flawless one on Wednesday. The initial read was for Kevin Garnett, holding the ball at the top of the key, to toss a pass over the top to Green after Pierce had set a back screen to seal Green’s defender. That was what happened. If Green had not been open, the second look was to Pierce on the elbow, which was not a bad second option.
Yet even Rivers, for all his late-game genius, had to be talked into running that play. He admitted that assistant coach Armond Hill lobbied for the play as Rivers waffled between a couple of choices. (In related news, how many coaches would go and whip up two different plays in that situation? And how probable is it that the play Rivers rejected would have worked, too?)
While the game-winning play was a massive part of the story, it was still only one part. The Celtics were dragging on the second night of a road back-to-back, after surviving a closer-than-preferred win over the Sixers in Philadelphia on Tuesday. They suffered a deep foul disparity in the first half against Indiana, committing 12 personal fouls while drawing only five, in large part because their tired legs made them slap instead of move their feet. But they recovered and nearly doubled-up the Pacers in the fourth quarter, outscoring Indy 25-13, to escape with an unlikely victory over a team that had won eight of its previous nine games.
“We didn’t have anything,” Rivers told reporters. “You could see it. They got into us. In the first half, I thought Indiana just bullied and pushed us around the floor. I thought we responded well in the second half, but for our team, it’s a great thing to just hang around. It’s what we’ve been all year. Hanging around and we stole the game.”
Granted, this took a lot of effort. The Celtics would still be best served making up some ground in the standings so they do not need to wrestle for wins on an opponent’s home floor four times in a seven-game series. As always, not having home-court advantage in the playoffs is a significant impediment to any team’s playoff hopes, no matter how resilient that team may be.
Suddenly, however, the teams in the middle of the playoff pack might want to be wary. The Celtics are coming, as they seem to do every season around this time, and the next “execution” they brag about may not be an expertly run play, but another team’s postseason demise at their hands.
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