PHILADELPHIA — Every time he took a hard hit without drawing a whistle, Paul Pierce glared at the officials a little longer and a little icier. The Philadelphia 76ers knew the Celtics captain was gutting through a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and they sensed a weakness. Rather than back off the guy with the gimpy leg, the Sixers hammered away at the veteran forward.
Pierce missed his first eight shots, but like a headband-wearing Bruce Banner, he was getting angry, and he was already wearing green. His next two attempts were hard dunks in traffic, one capped off with a roar and a slap of the backboard.
Still, even though Pierce finished the game with 24 points, helping the Celtics defeat the Sixers 107-91 and take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, he never had the offensive explosion that seemed inevitable. Pierce shot an underwhelming 2-for-10 from the field in the first half and 6-for-17 in the game, yet he turned his attention to other matters on a night when several Celtics players went out of their elements to get a decisive win.
"Paul has been struggling with his scoring, but he has been doing the intangibles," Rajon Rondo said.
Pierce grabbed 12 rebounds, including five offensive boards, and swiped three steals to compensate for his off shooting performance. Rondo picked up some of the scoring slack by scoring 13 points in the first quarter with only one assist, en route to a 23-point, 14-assist night. Kevin Garnett, who prefers to focus on defense, continued to take on more of the offensive burden with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
All three players did things in a slightly different manner than they traditionally do, and the varied contributions added up to an easy victory.
"We talked about it before," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "If what you do well is not there, what else are you going to do to help your team as a group? Paul was a great example of that. I thought a lot of guys had those type of games."
For most of the playoffs, the answer to any adversity or shortcoming in one area of the game was to simply place the onus on Garnett. His scoring average is up nearly four points per game in the playoffs from the regular season, and his rebounds are up more than two per game as well.
Pierce's numbers are down, if only slightly. The drop-off for Pierce is subjective. He has not appeared to be moving well, although he attests to no pain, and his jump shot has flattened even more than it usually does.
Garnett does see a player who is struggling when he looks at Pierce, though. Pierce has not followed his missed shots by sulking and jogging back on defense. He has instead been one of the first players back, hopping along on one leg, and is the most aggressive at boxing out for rebounds. That attitude has carried over to his teammates, Garnett said.
"Paul's having a tough series for us as far as scoring, but [Wednesday] he did so many different things that impact the game," Garnett said. "Rebound, setting guys up, steals, being actively defensively, talking. He's just so active, and we're going to need that, man. Stuff like that spreads like wildfire when your best players are doing it."
As Pierce walked off the court, a disgruntled Philadelphia fan shouted from the stands, "Pierce, you [stink]!" The fan was not entirely wrong. For most of this series, Pierce has stunk offensively, failing to tally the high scoring totals everyone is used to seeing him put up.
Pierce has shown the Sixers that even when he plays badly, though, he can still affect the game in a way few players can. A few hard knocks will not take that away, or keep him from inspiring his teammates to follow his example.