Pierce relishes opportunity
Loss to Orlando stuck with him
As the time ticked away, Paul Pierce stared at the floor, lips pursed, grimacing slightly. He was practically forcing himself to watch as the Magic ran the clock down on the Celtics’ 2008-09 season.
Dwight Howard took a couple of dribbles, then pounded the ball into the parquet so hard that it skied above the floor. He and Rashard Lewis hugged, and Marcin Gortat came off the bench to join them.
Pierce said he would keep it all in the back of his mind. The 5-point lead the Celtics had in the fourth quarter, the 19-point ditch the Magic ultimately lowered them into, the wild guarantee from Patrick Ewing that the Magic would steal the win, the fact that maybe things would have played out differently had the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett not been out with a knee injury.
Pierce gave weight to it all, saying he’d bring it all back to the forefront if the Celtics and Magic met again in the postseason.
“When you go into an offseason and you don’t win a championship, you use things like that for motivation,’’ Pierce said. “That was one of my motivations.’’
It’s funny how things worked out.
The Celtics will get another shot at the Magic, beginning today at 3:30, with a trip to the Finals on the line. The teams are drastically different from last year. Garnett is back. So is Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson, a key piece who was missing a year ago because of a shoulder injury. The Magic have added players, starting with professional scorer Vince Carter. So have the Celtics, who now have Rasheed Wallace on their bench.
But the most dramatic difference is that both teams are completely healthy, which saves Pierce from having to ask about what-ifs.
“You get an opportunity to get a chance to play against an Orlando Magic team at their full strength and at our full strength,’’ Pierce said. “You’ve got the two best teams in the Eastern Conference full strength, going at it to see who’s going to go to the championship.
“I’m confident where we are. They’re playing very well, if not the best of everybody in basketball over the last month. We’ve got our work cut out for us.’’
Celtics coach Doc Rivers made it clear that last year’s series is in the past.
“How long do you hold onto it?’’ he asked. “Obviously, you’re playing them again and you should remember that they beat you. I don’t think Game 7 is what you think about. You should think about that they beat you. That’s what you should focus on. But again, it’s not the team that we played last year.’’
Though Cleveland looked like the front-runner as it danced its way through the regular season with LeBron James on the way to his second MVP, Rivers every so often would remind his team that the Magic were still the team to go through to get out of the East. With the Cavaliers already sent home by the Celtics, the statement couldn’t be any truer.
“Like we told our guys,’’ Rivers said, “Cleveland wasn’t our goal and neither is Orlando.
“Having said that, Orlando was the team coming into the season where if you wanted to get out of the East, you had to beat Orlando. They’re the team that won the East last year, not Cleveland, and I wanted to make sure our guys had focus on that.’’
Orlando has been dominant in the first two rounds, sweeping Charlotte and Atlanta. Nelson has averaged 20.5 points and 5.3 assists in the playoffs, and Howard shot an insane 84 percent in the four games vs. Atlanta.
The Celtics have morphed into a completely different team than the one that struggled to find consistency during a 50-32 regular season. Using the defense that became the signature of their 2008 championship run, they bottled up both the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Cleveland’s James.
Still, Pierce has a special place carved out in his memory bank for last year’s series.
“Just the way we went out, especially on our home court, really left a bad taste in my mouth,’’ he said. “Hopefully, if we can get this series win, it can erase some of that.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.