Captain issues orders
Pierce decides it’s time to take control
SAN ANTONIO — This is not the best place to start a winning streak, facing a team with the best home record in the NBA. That hardly mattered to Paul Pierce. The Celtics could have had their next three games against the 1983 76ers, 1985 Lakers, and 1996 Bulls, and he would have said the same thing after Monday’s loss to the Pacers.
Pierce felt the need yesterday morning to call out himself and his teammates, demanding improvement, and the Celtics produced in their 107-97 win over the Spurs last night at the AT&T Center. The Celtics have little concern about the schedule and are shifting more attention to the postseason. The regular season ends in less than two weeks, and they are playing their worst basketball of the season. That’s a combination that could lead to an early summer vacation.
While Kevin Garnett is the unquestioned spiritual leader of the team, Pierce is the captain, and the Celtics seemingly have been too consumed with the trade deadline activity and the injuries to Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal to fully concentrate on the last 20 games.
“The guys know what’s at stake and I just tried to reiterate that, especially with the season winding down and the playoffs around the corner,’’ Pierce said before the shootaround. “I just let everybody know how important these games are.
“At this point in the season, we should be playing our best basketball and we’re not. I don’t know if it’s we’re looking ahead to the playoffs or what, but we’ve got to understand that these games are important as far as building, and that’s what I’m trying to reiterate.’’
Pierce played with a passion not seen in weeks, and his teammates followed. After getting burned for layups, Rajon Rondo took his matchup with Tony Parker personally, producing his first 20-plus-point, 10-plus-assist game in four months. He was especially motivated after Ray Allen chewed him out for focusing on a non-call and allowing Parker to score a layup leading to a 3-point play.
Garnett shot the ball with confidence, and scored a victory in his duel with Tim Duncan. Pierce tallied 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists in one of his better performances of the season. In one critical possession, Pierce sliced through two Spurs to rebound his own miss and score a putback for a 97-87 lead with 2:49 left.
“I just tried to go out and lead by example,’’ Pierce said afterward. “I’ve just got to continue to lead this team the way I lead and hopefully we can get back on track.’’
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ defense, after being staggered in the first quarter, limited the Spurs to 41 percent shooting over the final three frames.
The Celtics are trying to avoid defensive pitfalls similar to late last season, when they lost seven of their final 10 games. Opponents were scorching the uninterested Celtics to embarrassing measures. In those 10 games, Manu Ginobili scored 28 points, Kevin Durant 37, Aaron Brooks 30, LeBron James 42, Danilo Gallinari 31, Andray Blatche 31 and Derrick Rose 39.
Those poundings occurred over 17 days, but the Celtics managed to right themselves quickly enough to reach the NBA Finals. Pierce has no intention of resting on laurels or relying on recent history. There are distinct differences between last year’s team and this year’s.
“We believe we can [make a run] like we did last year, but at the same time we didn’t have seven new players, either,’’ Pierce said before the game. “It’s a little different situation.
“We had guys who were there all year long. We didn’t have any trades. We had the same guys in the locker room, whereas now we have different guys and we try to get them to understand what it takes, and in doing that it starts for the rest of these games.’’
The Celtics went through an extensive practice here Wednesday, and coach Doc Rivers was hardly concerned about tiring out his team for the back-to-back set with the Spurs and Hawks. While the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference becomes more unlikely, and the Celtics may even fall to third because of Miami’s advantageous schedule, they are tired of blaming the absence of the O’Neals and the arrival of the newcomers for their slump.
Like many teams who have had success, the Celtics have gone through stretches of boredom. How else to explain losses to Memphis, Charlotte, and Indiana? How else to explain the offensive ineptitude and defensive breakdowns?
Pierce noticed that, and he viewed the aftermath of the 107-100 loss to the Pacers as an opportunity to challenge himself and his teammates.
When asked if he planned to assert himself earlier in games, Pierce said, “Nah, I don’t pre-plan my games. I just go with the flow. I just go into the game like the ocean — whatever direction it’s going, I just go with it.’’
Rivers is not convinced Pierce’s words will have a positive affect. He wants to see it in the players’ actions.
“You knew Paul would [respond] because when you speak up you have to be the one,’’ Rivers said. “I thought Paul clearly carried us in the early going. When Kevin went out [with foul] trouble and we needed scoring, it was Paul. Early in the game, he took it over for us and that’s what we can do. That was wonderful.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.