Over and above
Pierce elevates his game to save depleted Celtics
The Celtics' Big Three were reduced to one last night. But it was the Bulls who ended up staggering at the end of the game, the finishing blows a result of finesse shooting from Paul Pierce and a hard foul from the most fragile-looking Celtic, Rajon Rondo.
Pierce connected on three jumpers in the final 77 seconds, the clinching score with 3.4 seconds remaining, in a 106-104 overtime win as the Celtics took a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series going into Chicago tomorrow.
"It got real physical out there, as you could see," said Pierce, who displayed a slight limp after taking a kick in the leg. "But this team has a never-die attitude. I mean, we've been down in a lot of games where we've shown we can come back. And that's just one of the characteristics of this team. We never look up and say, 'This game is over,' regardless of the time, the score."
With Ray Allen (fouled out) and Kevin Garnett (right knee injury) on the bench, the Celtics rallied in the third game decided after regulation in this series - the first time in NBA history a playoff series has included three overtime contests.
This one was not decided until Chicago center Brad Miller missed a free throw with 2.0 seconds to go.
As in Games 1 (a 105-103 Bulls overtime win) and 4 (a 121-118 Bulls double-overtime triumph), the Celtics seemed poised to clinch in the final seconds, then nearly let things slip away.
Pierce stretched the lead to 104-101 with 36.5 seconds remaining. But Ben Gordon then drew a three-shot foul from Tony Allen, tying the score with 27.3 second to go. Pierce broke the tie with :01 on the shot clock, firing over John Salmons off the dribble out of a timeout.
That set up the final sequence after Chicago called its last timeout.
Miller was left alone at the foul line on the inbounds pass; he took a dribble to the basket and appeared to be hit in the face by Rondo with 2.0 seconds to go, his shot blocked by Kendrick Perkins. After an officials' review of the play, Miller missed the first free throw, then launched the second shot off the backboard in an attempt to regain possession, the ball automatically going to the Celtics. Pierce missed the first free throw, then intentionally sent the second off the back iron, allowing the clock to run out.
Chicago coach Vinny Del Negro believed the Rondo foul was flagrant, which would have allowed the Bulls a final possession. Celtics coach Doc Rivers called it "a playoff foul," and Rondo said it was "a hard foul, nothing flagrant."
It has been a difficult series, filled with hard contact and high-scoring games. The Celtics won a 107-86 blowout in Game 3, but the other four contests have been decided in the final seconds.
The Bulls entered the game with one injured player - Ben Gordon, who played nearly 51 minutes, more than anyone else, and scored 26 points. Kirk Hinrich (forehead) and Miller (mouth) both absorbed blows requiring stitches.
Pierce performed for 50 minutes 40 seconds, had ice packs strapped to his legs, but made it sound as if it has been as much fun as when he was a youngster playing pickup games in Inglewood, Calif.
But the Celtics' biggest loss appeared to be Ray Allen, disqualified after a double foul was whistled as he ran into a Miller screen.
The Celtics, who trailed, 77-66, seemed to have finally found a groove as Allen hit a three with :01 on the shot clock to cut the deficit to 83-80 with 5:45 remaining. But 18 seconds later, Allen and Miller collided and Allen departed. Rondo (28 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists) extended a 9-0 run with a layup, cutting the deficit to 83-82 with 4:31 left.
Salmons and Gordon sank threes around two Pierce foul shots for a 5-point Chicago lead. Glen Davis's free throw and Perkins's putback were followed by a Derrick Rose third-chance drive, Chicago leading, 91-87 with 1:50 remaining. Rondo drove, cutting the Celtics' deficit to 2 with 1:40 remaining, then Perkins blocked Salmons and Pierce converted a layup off a Rondo feed to tie it, 91-91, with 1:14 left.
Rose drove into the lane, drawing a Rondo foul, then again driving, this time traveling, as the Celtics regained possession with 49.3 seconds remaining.
Rondo airballed a short shot out of a timeout, Gordon giving the Bulls a 93-91 lead with 16.6 remaining. Pierce tied the score, 93-93, out of a timeout with 10.5 seconds left.
The Celtics led by as many as 6 points in the early going, but then trailed by as many as 11. And the deficit might have been worse; Davis, with two 3-point plays, and Rondo, with two shot-clock buzzer-beating threes, kept the Celtics in contention.
"I thought for the first time in the entire game that was the time we actually slowed down and played with great patience on offense, moved the ball, and trusted each other," Rivers said. "We almost panicked, taking quick shots, and that's not who we ever are. But down the stretch, our execution was phenomenal."