Paul Pierce’s Heroics Becoming Necessary for Celtics to Compete, Even Against Lesser Teams

BOSTON — As the misses mounted for Jason Terry, it became almost comical. Here was one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, a player with more clutch shots on his resume than all except a handful of active players. Yet he could not have found the bottom of the net if you gave him a map and sat him on top of the rim.

Terry was the master bricklayer, shooting 1-for-15 from the field in the Celtics’ 99-94 overtime loss to the Bucks on Friday, but he was by no means the only culprit. Playing their third game in four nights, several Celtics saw their normally reliable shooting strokes disappear. If not for a herculean performance by Paul Pierce, the Celtics would not have needed five extra minutes to earn the defeat.

“For me, this is a tough one to swallow,” Terry said. “Close game, team needs you, and you just couldn’t get it done.”

Kevin Garnett shot 6-for-22 and Brandon Bass was 2-for-6 as Boston lost for the fourth time in five games. The Bucks got 27 points from Monta Ellis and 12 points from Brandon Jennings, yet shot-swatter Larry Sanders only blocked two shots against the Celtics, one of his favorite victims. If not for Terry and Garnett’s cold shooting, that stat might have been the most shocking.

Poor shooting did not explain the Celtics’ ineffectiveness on defense, however. The Bucks whittled down four 10-point deficits in a matter of minutes, finally fighting back from the double-digit deficit with three minutes left in the first half to tie the game less than seven minutes into the third quarter. Even when the Celtics rebuilt their lead to eight points entering the fourth quarter, it took just over four minutes for the Bucks to tie the score again.

More than anyone’s shooting struggles, those defensive breakdowns were what frustrated Pierce in another close game against a supposedly inferior opponent. Solid all-around efforts off the bench by Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee were either insufficient or inconsistent to close out the Bucks without some scoring contribution by Terry, Garnett or Rajon Rondo.

“There’s going to be nights when shots don’t fall, and one thing we can control, I think, is our intensity on the defensive end,” said Pierce, who ended up with 35 points. “We are inconsistent. We play well for the most part and we look up there and see they shoot 43 percent, but it has to be throughout the whole game, more consistently. We can’t give up 17-0 runs to Cleveland. We can’t give up 10-0 runs to Milwaukee, and then decide that’s when we want to play defense.”

The Bucks (14-11) have a better record than the Celtics (13-13), but Boston was expected to own this series. Milwaukee is looking to avoid a third straight season in the draft lottery and has not made it out of the first round of the playoffs since George W. Bush‘s sixth month as president. No amount of backcourt firepower or frontcourt athleticism was supposed to make the Bucks capable of beating the Celtics three times in four tries.

“Give the Bucks credit,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They’ve beaten us three times, so they’re the better team right now. Maybe we’ll play them later, which means playoffs, and we’re better by then.”

Pierce’s point total only partly described his effort on Friday. He missed only one shot in five attempts in the first quarter, then hit four of his next seven shots between the second and third quarters. With 42.2 seconds to go in regulation, the Celtics trailed by seven points and fans began streaming for the exits. But Pierce hit a pair of free throws, Jennings missed a pair and Rondo converted an inbounds lob play to Green for a dunk to cut the deficit to 88-85.

With 18.2 seconds left, Rivers and his coaches had what he later called a “long debate” — which probably lasted less than a minute — about whether to intentionally foul or defend. Rivers put it to a player vote, and all five voted to defend. When the ball was inbounded, Jennings, who was expecting a foul, got flustered when he was trapped near halfcourt and threw the ball directly to Rondo. The Celtics point guard dished to Terry, who clanged a 3-pointer (his 13th miss of the night). But Green tipped the offensive rebound out to Pierce, who quickly set his feet and fired a three. The ball dropped through the net to tie the game with 2.7 seconds remaining and caused an eruption among the fans left in the stands.

In overtime, though, Pierce faded while the rest of the Celtics’ problems persisted. Clearly gassed, Pierce missed three of his four shots, although his one make helped Garnett tie the game on final time, on a jumper.

This is what the Celtics are right now. They are only good enough to hang with any opponent as long as Pierce, or one of their other stars, is putting together an epic performance. When he falls just short of fails to get some token assistance from a teammate, the Celtics struggle to beat anyone.

It should not have to be this hard. If the Celtics had their way, they would defend well enough to produce their share of transition baskets, and their offense would be balanced enough to not need a 35-year-old forward to fill a SportsCenter reel for them to have a chance to win.

“It’s good teaching for our guys later that you’re never out of a game, and you never have a game won,” Rivers said of his team’s ability to wipe out the seven-point deficit in 42 seconds. “It can go either way.”

At the moment, most of them are going just one way, and not in the direction the Celtics would like.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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