“The Truth will set you free.” –John 8:32
“Did he just hit ‘em with a Tebow? He hit ‘em with a Tebow!” –Greg Anthony
In our meandering, not totally complete recap of the Boston Celtics’ 2012 season, we wrote of how Rajon Rondo’s mid-January wrist injury threatened to close the book on the likely final run of the Garnett Era before it could well and truly get going. The Celtics had started the season 4-8. They had just lost five in a row. They had scored 33 fewer points than they had allowed. They couldn’t rebound and they couldn’t run. At best, they looked out of shape and out of rhythm; at worst, they looked old and washed-up. Apart from hot-hot-hit-maker Brandon Bass, they seemed awfully thin behind their core group of Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With an average of 15 points and nine assists holding up his early-season highlight reel of improbable, elastic-armed scoop shots, galloping assaults on the basket and mind-bending no-look passes, Rondo had easily been the Celtics’ best player through their first 12 games. It seemed impossible that they could endure an extended stretch without him.
**By the way, if you click on that highlight reel link above, we recommend you turn the sound off on your computer, unless your idea of a hot jam is one that pulls off the neat trick of being both thoroughly maudlin and so “uplifting” that it insults your intelligence, while making no sense as a soundtrack to exciting basketball clips.
Enter Paul Pierce, who took over from Rondo as point-forward and quarterbacked the team to six wins over their next eight games. After missing the season’s first three games with a heel injury, then struggling to play himself into condition over the next ten, Pierce elevated his game and carried his team when it needed him most.
Pierce put up 21.5 points on 48 percent shooting while dishing out 7.5 assists and collecting six rebounds per game. He had two double-doubles with assists (34-10 and 24-10) and one with rebounds (28-10). He reminded us all who this team really belongs to.
Jump forward to Tuesday: With Boston down one game to zero in their Conference Quarterfinal matchup with the Atlanta Hawks; with Rajon Rondo serving a one-game suspension for slipping on a banana peel whilst consumed by a blind rage; with the Celtics once again looking old and out of rhythm, Paul Pierce put on the Captain’s hat and drove his team to victory.
Pierce absolutely shredded the Hawks with a 36-point, 14-rebound performance. He nearly outscored them on his own in the fourth quarter, turning in 13 points off two driving lay-ins, one soul-stirring dunk, a dagger three, a wide open J and a pair of clutch free throws while Atlanta struggled their way to 14.
It was a classic “toolbox” game for Pierce, as he used every ounce of his craftiness and ballet footwork to build strings of fluid, interlocking moves into buckets and foul calls. We did our best to note the component pieces associated with each play:
First Quarter, 11:53: Steals the opening tip. Drive, spin, layin (2).
11:10: Jab step, jab step, sidle dribble, step-back, fade away (4).
10:28: Curl, runner, bank and-one (7).
9:46: Curl, pull-up (9).
3:07: Curl, pull-up, up-fake, jumper (11).
2:23: Catch, up-fake, drive into contact; two shots, makes both (13).
Second Quarter, 3:46: Curl, hand-off, hesitation, jab step, pullback, turnaround fade away (15).
2:28: Drive into contact; two shots, makes one (16).
Third Quarter, 4:18: Curl, hand-off, back-spin, drive into contact; two shots, makes both (18).
2:52: Walk-up, drive, spin, back into contact; two shots, makes both (20).
1:50: Transition push-up, hard plant, back-spin with dribble, jab step, step-back (22).
0:34: Up-fake, drive into contact; two shots, makes one (23).
Fourth Quarter, 10:44: Jog-up, hesitation, cross, drive, lay-in (25).
6:30: Jog-up, hesitation, drive, lay-in (27).
4:00: Steal, transition, give-and-get, dunk, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!!”(29).
3:29: Jog-up, dagger three (32).
2:32: High screen, dribble to an open spot, jumper (34).
1:15: Fouled on rebound; two shots, makes both (36).
These days, they call it “Truthing.” The kids know how it’s done.
Perhaps lost in the glorious glare of Pierce’s performance — the seventh 30-10 playoff game of his career — was the Celtics’ defense, which held the Hawks to 27.5 percent second-half shooting. With 3:08 left in the third quarter, the Celtics trailed 65-54. Their 11-point deficit was the largest of the game. At the 5:35 mark of the fourth quarter, Marquis Daniels threw down a dunk that put the C’s up 74-72. The Hawks had scored seven points in the past nine-and-a-half minutes. Boston would not trail again.
Prior to the start of the fourth quarter, Hawks coach Im-Ho-Tep made the following comment during his between-quarters sideline interview:
Boston’s going to chip away. We had some bad possessions offensively, where we ran the shot clock down and got into a low clock situation and took some bad shots. We’ve got to get into our sets quicker so we can utilize both sides of the floor.
Things didn’t quite go according to plan. The following is an unmitigated review of the Hawks’ fourth-quarter offensive possessions up to the 5:53 mark; the last possession before the Celtics took the lead for good.
11:44-11:23: Kirk Hinrich drives to the extended elbow and dribbles in place. With 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock, he passes to Josh Smith, who is guarded tightly by Kevin Garnett just inside the corner. Smith catches the ball with his back to KG, then slowly pivots to face him. He puts down a stutter step to try to trigger a baseline drive, but can’t generate the requisite space from Garnett. He pulls out to the extended elbow and attempts another drive. Garnett locks down, allowing him no further in than the elbow. Smith pulls up for a jumper with five seconds to go. With KG all over him, the shot misses badly, banking high off the backboard and missing the rim as it comes down (ATL 66, BOS 61).
11:14-10:51: Willie Green advances the ball across half-court to the wing. With 12 on the shot clock, he passes off to Marvin Williams, who stands just a few feet away. Williams pushes the ball back to Green, who has now shifted to the top of the key. Green dribbles toward Williams, hoping to use a screen to get down the sideline into the corner. Kevin Garnett steps forward to bar his progress down the sideline and Keyon Dooling closes in from the side, trapping him against the boundary. Green picks up his dribble, and with five seconds remaining, bails out to Ivan Johnson who bricks a top-of-the-key three attempt (ATL 66, BOS 61).
“Ivan Johnson for three. That’s not a high-percentage deal.” -Kevin Calabro
10:41-10:22: Kirk Hinrich advances past half-court. Just over the line, he’s picked up by Avery Bradley. With 11 seconds remaining, he hits Willie Green with a pass at the elbow. Dooling and Garnett immediately double Green, who swings to an open Marvin Williams in the corner. As Ryan Hollins pops out to defend, Williams thinks better of putting up a shot and pulls out to the wing. Feeling space to operate, he attempts a drive to the baseline, where he collides with Hollins and gets the benefit of a blocking foul that could have gone either way (ATL 66, BOS 63).
10:22-10:07: The Hawks inbound to Williams, who passes out to Hinrich above the arc. With six seconds on the shot clock, Hinrich dumps the ball in to Tracy McGrady, who is guarded by Marquis Daniels just inside the extended elbow. McGrady backs Daniels towards the paint, then kicks out to Williams just off the top of the key. Williams drives past Paul Pierce and directly at Garnett. As the shot clock approaches zero, Williams opts to pass out to Jason Collins on the baseline rather than elevate for the shot. The clock expires and the Celtics take possession (ATL 66, BOS 63).
9:56-9:42: Kirk Hinrich advances past half-court to the top of the key, where he proceeds to use a series of crossovers to propel himself inside of the arc. With 15 seconds left, he shoves the ball out to Williams who misfires on a three. Hinrich collects the offensive rebound on the baseline and dribbles up to a spot just outside of the paint. As he goes up for the shot, Avery Bradley approaches from behind and elevates high above, swatting the ball into the hands of Paul Pierce (ATL 66, BOS 63).
9:36-9:18: Hinrich walks the ball up the court. Across the mid-line, he is picked up by Marquis Daniels. Hinrich sidles to the right of the key, jabs at Daniels, pulls back, crosses, pulls back again, and then calls for a screen. Jason Collins obliges, springing Hinrich to the hoop for a running scoop shot that loops over the rim and into the arms of Kevin Garnett (ATL 66, BOS 64).
8:44-8:25: Jeff Teague has entered the game for Willie Green, and has now taken over the point guard duties from Hinrich. The Hawks’ possessions now have a different feel to them. Where Hinrich was content to walk the ball up and routinely burn 10 seconds or more off the shot clock before making the first ball action, Teague advances the ball quickly and looks to get Atlanta into their sets much sooner.
On this first possession, Avery Bradley picks up Teague as he crosses the half-court line and attempts to send a pass to Joe Johnson down the sideline. We say “attempts” because Avery slashes his hand into the passing lane and pops the ball high into the air, deflecting it toward the stands. Bradley sprints after the ball, leaps, catches it one-handed, and flings it back into play. The ball bounces into the back court, where it is recovered by Teague.
With the shot clock reset to 24, Teague once again crosses the half-court line, this time to be met by Mickael Pietrus. Jason Collins sets up at the top of the key to offer a screen which, at first, Teague appears to take him up on. He drives hard toward the paint, but as he nears Collins, he veers away from him. This seems to disorient Collins, who steps forward to carry the screen to Pietrus, who is moving, with Teague, away from him. His “screen” turns out to be a shove to Pietrus’ back. The foul is Collins’ sixth and final. He is removed from the game and the Celtics take over possession (ATL 66, BOS 66).
8:13-8:04: The Hawks run the most efficient and, ultimately, successful possession of the quarter so far, scoring their first points since the 0:46 mark of the third quarter. Off a Paul Pierce miss, Jeff Teague advances the ball up court, then puts down a cross-over and spin move to facilitate a drive past Avery Bradley into the paint. Bradley tails him toward the basket and fouls him as he attempts a runner over Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He misses the shot, but makes both free throws. With these points, the Hawks break a tie and go up 68-66.
7:44-7:27: With 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Teague drives toward the free throw line and kicks out to Marvin Williams on the wing. Fronted by Pierce, Williams swings to Joe Johnson above the arc. Johnson holds the ball for a moment, staring down Mickael Pietrus. He crosses the ball between his legs then throws a jab step, pulls back, crosses over and drives to the basket, getting past Pietrus for a runner in the lane. The Hawks go up again, 70-68.
7:03-6:39: Teague passes the ball up to Joe Johnson, who uses a Josh Smith screen to propel himself from the wing to the top of the key. Johnson is quickly swallowed up by a double team from Kevin Garnett and Mickael Pietrus. Off the elbow, he picks up his dribble and up-fakes futilely, getting no response from his defenders. With 14 seconds on the shot clock, Johnson turns and passes out to Kirk Hinrich at the top of the key, who quickly swings to Teague on the wing. Teague holds the ball until seven seconds remain. At this point, he takes one dribble, then swings back to Hinrich.
With time running short, Hinrich drives into the free throw circle, spins to the elbow, and passes out to Marvin Williams in the corner. With under four seconds left, Williams drives at the lane, putting up a runner from a spot below the elbow. His shot beats the clock but misses the basket (ATL 70, BOS 70).
6:27-5:53: With the Celtics now leading 72-70, Teague once again sends the ball forward to Joe Johnson, who walks it into the front court. Johnson picks up his dribble several feet above the wing, then sends a bounce pass to Josh Smith just off the top of the key. Smith back-spins to get past Kevin Garnett and drives into the paint, where he is picked up by Paul Pierce. Smith’s runner is well short, just catching the front of the rim.
Garnett is in position to collect the rebound, but can’t control it. It bounces away to Johnson, who gets it out to Marvin Williams on the perimeter via a swing pass from Kirk Hinrich. Williams passes the ball to Jeff Teague, who sends it back to Williams, who sends it back to Teague, who sends it back to Williams. There are now 16 seconds left on the shot clock. Counting the one from Kirk Hinrich that started this waste of time and movement, that’s five pointless passes stacked on top of each other.
Williams breaks the loop by sending the ball to Johnson, who is guarded by Marquis Daniels just inside the extended elbow. Daniels plays Johnson tightly as he drives to the free throw line, bothering him into an airball. Williams is in position to collect the rebound, which he lays up and in to tie the game back up at 72.
On the ensuing Celtics possession, Kevin Garnett finds a cutting Marquis Daniels underneath the hoop for a dunk that puts Boston back up 74-72. Two minutes later, Paul Pierce sinks a dagger three that puts the Celtics up by seven points, the margin they would eventually go on to win by.
The Hawks shot 4-19 from the field in the final 12 minutes. At 21 percent, it was their worst field goal shooting performance of the game. They managed a mere six points in the paint after scoring 36 through the first three quarters. They attempted 10 shots from outside of the paint, including four threes, and made one of them.