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Celtics 94, Pacers 87

Pierce, Celtics keep up pace

Winning streak stretches to four

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By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / January 28, 2012
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The Celtics did not plan to be a .500 team at this point in the season. Nor could they have foreseen having to depend on Paul Pierce to both set up teammates and carry the scoring load.

But after a 94-87 win over the Indiana Pacers last night, the Celtics are feeling like their 9-9 record indicates they are a team with a glass that is more than half full.

Pierce led the way with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists and Kevin Garnett, the only Celtic to play in every game this season, added inside strength as the Celtics outrebounded the Pacers, 45-42, and held them to six second-chance points.

“That was the focus right there,’’ Pierce said. “We understood they’re the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the league.

“We looked at the tape and [saw] we could get stops on them, we did last game, we just didn’t get the rebound. If we could do that, we could run on them. And I thought we did a good job getting offensive rebounds.’’

A week ago, there was an empty feeling around the Celtics as they fell four games below .500 and were struggling to replace Rajon Rondo (right wrist). There were also questions about Pierce’s consistency as he recovered from a heel bruise.

Pierce, though, has apparently returned to health. As the Celtics have compiled a four-game winning streak, Pierce has regained his shooting touch and also taken on Rondo’s playmaking role, averaging 26.3 points and 8.8 assists. But the Celtics have also increased their intensity defensively and under the basket.

The Celtics were decisively outrebounded by the Pacers in two previous losses, tying a team low with a 25-point first half in an 87-74 home loss Jan. 6. Though the Pacers matched that point total last night, the Celtics’ ability to turn defensive stops into offense and Pierce’s return to form made the difference.

“It’s our defense,’’ said Pierce, after the Celtics limited the Pacers to .350 field goal success. “I mean, you look at the defensive numbers, we’ve been holding teams to really low shooting percentages. We’ve been keeping teams under 100, rebounding the ball a lot better.’’

The game was played less than 24 hours after the Celtics’ dramatic second-half rally for a 91-83 victory in Orlando. The Celtics maintained that momentum, though they faltered early in the second half before Pierce got them back on track.

Danny Granger capped a 14-4 Indiana run spanning the halves, tying the game at 46 with 8:44 remaining in the third quarter. But Pierce took over, sparking an 11-0 run over a 2:04 span, his transition drive providing a 57-46 advantage with 6:21 left in the quarter. He ended up scoring 17 points and adding two assists during the quarter, as the Celtics finished it leading by 10.

Pierce had to get down and dirty to keep the Celtics going. He went to the floor to rebound his own miss, then fed Chris Wilcox for a dunk and a 69-57 edge with 2:39 to go before taking a break until 4:44 into the final quarter.

The defending of Avery Bradley on Pacers point guard Darren Collison paid off as the Celtics held the Pacers at bay. Marquis Daniels’s dunk off a turnover provided an 81-65 advantage with 8:39 remaining before Indiana rallied with a 10-0 run over a 2:31 span.

Mickael Pietrus’s 3-pointer broke a three-minute Celtic scoreless streak, then Pierce followed two Granger foul shots with a lefthanded drive. Garnett (13 points, 8 rebounds) made it 88-77 with 4:26 remaining.

The Celtics seemed to be faltering, but Pietrus, taking on the role of Ray Allen (ankle), dunked out of a timeout with 2:49 to go and Pierce appeared to close out the contest by stealing a rebound from Roy Hibbert.

But the Pacers pulled within 7 as Pietrus was called for a flagrant-1 foul and a technical for taunting, before Garnett blocked a Granger drive with 29 seconds to go.

“I was telling the guys we’re finally at sea level,’’ Pierce said after the Celtics finally returned to the .500 mark. “Now we’ve got to keep our heads above water.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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