Celtics coach Doc Rivers said "there really was no issue," downplaying a heated exchange with Paul Pierce late in the fourth quarter. Pierce said nothing, atypically avoiding reporters after Boston defeated Milwaukee, 101-100, last night at the FleetCenter.
The Celtics captain spoke volumes with his absence. The spin delivered by Rivers, and later by Gary Payton, met with deserved skepticism. The incident and its aftermath unfortunately overshadowed an impressive win by the Celtics, who were admittedly off their game.
With 4 minutes 45 seconds remaining, Rivers replaced Pierce with Jiri Welsch. A look of disbelief flashed across Pierce's face, then it quickly turned to anger. As Pierce strode past Rivers, he directed an expletive-laced tirade toward the coach, fully venting his frustration before taking a seat. The shouting continued with Rivers clearly, firmly, and repeatedly telling Pierce, "You're sitting." Pierce leaned back in his chair and stared at the action on the court with a sullen expression.
"I wanted everybody to run the floor," said Rivers. "I didn't think he was running the floor on the last couple of possessions. So, I took him out. I don't mind him being upset at all. It's a fiery game. It's an emotional game. I made my point. I put him back in and he made a big shot for me."
Pierce returned with 2:54 left, still noticeably angry about what had transpired. He displayed defiance with his body language as he passed Rivers, staring straight ahead, chest raised, shoulders back. Payton came up beside Pierce and reminded the captain to focus on the game. On the Celtics' first possession with Pierce back in the game, Payton fed him for a 3-pointer that went a long way toward securing the win. The basket pushed Boston ahead, 97-93, and Pierce punctuated the play by shouting in the direction of Rivers and the bench. Obviously, Pierce (team-high 23 points) believed he had proven why he should play as many minutes as possible in a close fourth quarter.
"When situations happen like that players seem to always get mad and then they stop playing," said Payton (10 points, 6 assists). "That is not a good way to do it. We were looking for a win. Young players always think the way they're going to get back at somebody is to not take shots. Then, we lose games and you say, `I told you so.' What Paul is about is being a competitor. When I got out there I ran up to him and said, `We don't need that. We need wins.' That's why I went right to him on the next play, got him a big shot. He hit the three and that's what a big-time basketball player should do."
Payton added that the argument was more a "misunderstanding" than anything else. But just 14 games into the season, it has become clear Pierce is not happy. When he repeatedly talks about the responsibilities of being captain, of being the highest-paid player on the team, of competing through the frustrations of one fourth-quarter collapse after another, Pierce sounds like a player on autopilot. But knowing what to say and believing what you say are very different things.
The episode last night may be easily attributed to Pierce's emotional competitiveness, an admirable quality most of the time. That said, the sullen disposition, the generally discouraged body language exhibited by Pierce has been commonplace. Don't forget, Pierce is an all-star who before the season began said, "I don't think I've seen the worst of my adversity in this game." During the summer, Pierce admitted he thought about asking for a trade, knowing the rebuilding project that awaited.
"Sometimes I make great decisions," said Rivers. "Sometimes I'm not going to make great decisions. But I'm always going to make a decision [based] on what at the time I think is best for the team. That's the way a coach always has to coach. It's never personal. You can't look at who it is. You have to look at execution. This team is one execution away from being a very good basketball team. I've got to demand [execution] of all five all the time."
Boston executed against Milwaukee when it mattered most -- in the final minute. After a 17-footer by Maurice Williams brought the Bucks within a point (99-98), Payton hit 1 of 2 free throws to give Boston 2-point lead with 8.6 seconds left. Williams went up for another 17-footer, but this time he pushed away the left arm of Tony Allen to get a less-obstructed shot at the basket. Instead, he received an offensive foul as the officials disallowed the field goal.
A foul shot by Pierce on the other end pushed Boston ahead, 101-98, with three seconds remaining and gave the Bucks one last chance, but the Celtics successfully denied the Bucks a 3-pointer and Keith Van Horn had to settle for a driving layup that could not draw the foul.
"Every time we win, it gives us confidence, especially in close games," said Rivers. "As crazy as it sounds, I actually enjoy these more than the other ones because it gives you chances to see a lot of different things, who can take the ball out, who will make smart plays.
"I've not seen these guys in these types of situations, so I'm trying to feel my way through them as well as they're trying to play through."
Last night, Rivers may have learned more about Pierce than he would have liked.