Pierce puts the pieces together
CHICAGO - Paul Pierce didn't feel like the Celtics played their "A" game in the first two playoff games against the Bulls. After two sluggish performances on offense, he played a major role in Boston getting satisfactory grades in Games 1 and 2. But with a needed A-plus offensive performance in a 107-86 victory in Game 3 last night at the United Center, the confident Pierce was the key to Boston's 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
"He's pretty much the most confident guy in the league, for sure," guard Rajon Rondo said. "Regardless of how he played the first two games, he is going to bring it. He's going to bring up his game for us. You don't really have to worry about Paul and how he plays. He's going to show up."
Just glancing at his scoring average, it didn't seem like much was wrong through the first two games. Pierce averaged 20.5 points during the regular season and 20.5 the first two playoff games against Chicago. But Pierce missed 13 of 21 shots en route to 23 points during a Game 1 loss and had 18 points on 8-of-19 shooting with only two made free throws in Game 2.
Pierce took extra shots before the game and didn't seem worried before tipoff. Neither was coach Doc Rivers.
"Paul's Paul. He'll be fine," Rivers said before the game. "We always want him to be aggressive, but we also want him to hit the open guy. We always talk about our star players being responsible with the ball and Paul has done that."
To help find his offensive stroke, Pierce noticed some things by watching film of the first two playoff games, like being more aggressive and staying away from defensive traps.
"It was watching tape, seeing how they were playing me, picking my spots," said Pierce. "I definitely wanted to come in [aggressive], especially on the road. You can come out aggressive and kind of set the tone early and kind of take the crowd out of the game, that's what we tried to do. I just took advantage of the opportunities. I just tried to go a little bit faster when I got the ball.
"During the first two games, I thought I was holding the ball a lot, allowing the trap to come instead of attacking it, taking it on and if the shot wasn't there finding other guys. But my approach is the same every game. [Last night] it wasn't about thinking about what you wanted to do."
Pierce broke out of his scoring slump in the first quarter by making 6 of 7 shots and nailing a 3-pointer for 13 quick points. With Pierce blazing early, the Celtics jumped to a 32-21 lead in the first quarter after shooting 56 percent from the field and never looked back.
"It was about going out there and doing it from the first quarter on. I wanted to be aggressive," Pierce said.
"He set the tone for us," Rivers said. "I thought he came out extremely aggressive and attacked early. He played the perfect decoy, but was aggressive at the same time. I thought it was beautiful how he played."
The next two quarters were easy for Pierce as he made three 3-pointers and two free throws en route to 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting and four 3-pointers in 28 minutes. With the Celtics up 25 at the end of the third quarter, 83-58, Pierce took the rest of the night off.
"I just tried to be very aggressive from the start," he said. "I thought in Game 1 and Game 2 I was a little hesitant in what I wanted to do because of what they did defensively. But I'm getting really, really comfortable with it, with what they are trying to do to me in terms of trapping and getting to the lane.
"I didn't play in the fourth. But in the first when I played a lot, the second and the third, I just need to be as aggressive as possible within the framework of what we tried to do as a team."
While Pierce passed with flying colors on this night, this series is far from over. But if the Celtics captain continues to grade well by scoring like he did last night, the Bulls will be grading their year in season-ending meetings soon.
"It's a big win for us," Pierce said. "Hopefully, we can build on what we did. They're going to come out strong in Game 4 because if they lost, we'll really have them in a [vulnerable] position if we go up, 3-1, going back home. So we have to expect their best game coming in here on Sunday. But it was definitely a big win just to get back home-court advantage."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com