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When scene is dire, Pierce gives Celtics exactly what they need


With the Celtics seriously depleted, Pierce delivers one of his finest playoff performances. (Getty Images)  
With the Celtics seriously depleted, Pierce delivers one of his finest playoff performances. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA -- Here was Paul Pierce at his best, when the Celtics needed him the most. Here was Pierce "giving the game what it needs," as he likes to say.

This one needed him. Lots of him. And that's what he gave.

It came on a day when the Celtics showed up at Philips Arena in an 0-1 hole, without the suspended Rajon Rondo but believing that Ray Allen would be able to finally put the pain and stiffness of a gimpy ankle in the past and give the team what it needed from him.

"I was almost positive he was playing," Doc Rivers had said before the game. But Allen not only couldn't play, he couldn't even do his pre-game shooting.

"We just don't know what to do," a dejected Rivers said of Allen's continued absence. "... We're definitely at a loss."

At a loss for answers about what course of rest and treatment will bring Allen back to the floor, but not at a loss in Game 2 against the Hawks. Behind 36 points and 14 rebounds from Pierce -- a devastatingly Pierce-like performance that included 13 points in the fourth quarter and a Tebow pose for good measure -- the Celtics beat the Hawks 87-80 to even their first-round series at 1-1 and steal home-court advantage.

"It ranks right up there when you factor in no Ray, no Rondo," Rivers said. "Literally, the only way we were going to win the game was if Paul played like that. He knew that. So did they, and yet he still did it. That just tells you how special it is."

This was no Finals game against the Lakers, no conference finals grudge match against Miami. This was the first round, where the Celtics were pushed to seven games by Atlanta in 2008, the maiden voyage of the Big Three. And with one calamity after another consuming the contenders and pretenders around them -- the Magic without Dwight Howard, the Bulls without Derrick Rose, the Knicks down 0-2 to Miami and 0-1 to a fire extinguisher -- the Celtics showed Tuesday night that their pulse is still pounding.

"The way we looked at it was this," Rivers was saying on his way to the bus, where Rondo -- a relieved, smiling Rondo -- waited for him behind a security gate. "The worst-case scenario was, we still hadn't lost a home game. So that's how I looked at it going into it. But I knew this was an important game, and Paul was terrific.

"Paul is Paul," Rivers said. "In a big game, that's who he is."

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That's who Pierce is, and this is who the Celtics are. This is who they still are.

Rivers had scripted the first seven or eight plays of the game, like a football coach, and if that didn't tell you how much he understood the importance of Pierce in this game, nothing would.

"It was Paul left, right and center," Rivers said, sounding like a football coach now.

Pierce scored the Celtics' first nine points -- layups, drives and jumpers -- and the tenor of the game had been established. But now the Celtics -- the Big Three down to two and also missing Rondo, who orchestrates it all -- had to find a way to win a road playoff game without their decision-maker and maestro.

The consequences weren't necessarily dire, as Rivers had pointed out. But for these Celtics and their headstrong point guard, gimpy Hall of Fame 3-point shooter and battle-worn Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the less nuisance along the way, the better.

It couldn't have been uglier, and the Celtics couldn't have been more out of sync than they were as they fell behind by 11 in the third quarter. But Rivers has instilled this affinity for ugliness in the Celtics, and they embrace it like no one else.

The ball in Pierce's hands now -- the scorer, passer and decision-maker for the Rondo-less, rudderless Celtics -- he found Keyon Dooling for a 3-pointer that cut Atlanta's lead to 62-54 with 3:34 left in the third. Later, when Pierce got to the locker room, Dooling was the first guy he sought out.

"That was the shot that gave us our legs," Pierce told him.

Pierce took it from there. By the end of the quarter, the Hawks' lead was five, and the unmistakable feel of another cold-blooded Celtics assault was everywhere. And Pierce knew it wasn't all him, but something else -- something awfully familiar from these Celtics -- that was going to do it.

"Our defense," he said.

The defining moment came with about 4½ minutes left and the Celtics leading by two, 74-72. Jeff Teague -- the Rondo of the Hawks -- had his shot blocked by Avery Bradley (who had three blocks in the game), and then Mickael Pietrus stole a pass from Joe Johnson and fed Pierce for a transition dunk and a 76-72 lead.

At the other end, Kevin Garnett cupped his hands around his mouth and barked defensive signals -- or obscenities, who knows -- as he slid back and forth to cut off Teague's penetration, forcing an errant 18-footer. Pierce pulled up for a 3-pointer -- his first of the series -- and suddenly Boston led 79-72 with 3:30 left.

The moment that everyone will remember was Pierce Tebowing after shooting a fourth-quarter free throw. "It wasn't pre-scripted," he said afterward. "It just came to me."

But the moment I'll remember, the pose that captured this performance from Pierce and the Celtics, came when Pierce stood at half court with the ball on one hip and his hand on the other as the final 15 seconds ticked away. He stood there, knowing what he had to do for the Celtics on this night -- knowing what the game needed for him -- and delivering it.

"It's not like a TV show where you know what's going to happen," Pierce said, though we've seen this show from the Celtics many times. "... I try to give the game what it needs, whatever that is. Maybe it won't be scoring the next game. Maybe it'll be something different."

You heard the man. Whatever it needs.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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