Paul Pierce Still Top Clutch Performer for Celtics, With Ball in Hands or Without

Josh Smith, Paul PierceThere was no brilliantly devised play call this time. If the Celtics’ last gut-check victory was an example of Paul Pierce‘s abilities as a $17 million decoy, their latest was a reminder in exactly why Doc Rivers usually puts the ball in this guy’s hands in the clutch.

The most polarizing topic among Celtics fans might not be whether the team is better without Rajon Rondo or whether Danny Ainge should have cleaned house at the most recent trade deadline. Instead, it could be the Celtics’ late-game offensive inclinations. Even supporters who do not want to trade everyone on the team to the Philippines groan audibly when the clock is winding down in a tight game and Pierce holds, holds, holds and holds the ball before finally shooting his patented off-balance, heavily contested 15-foot jump shot at the buzzer.

Lest anyone forgot, though, Pierce has earned the right to fail over the course of his 15 years in the NBA. He has earned that right by coming up big countless times, and he did so again on Friday in the Celtics’ 107-102 win over the Hawks.

With the Celtics in need of an offensive spark after blowing a nine-point lead with less than five minutes remaining, Pierce delivered repeatedly in overtime. He scored or assisted all 11 points the Celtics scored off field goals in the extra session, including the 3-pointer by Jason Terry that snapped a tie with 35 seconds remaining. It was enough for Rivers to almost feel comfortable with the Celtics playing their 11th overtime game of the season — almost.

“The good part of it is, we’re winning them,” Rivers said. “A lot of those overtimes, you feel like we shouldn’t have gone into overtime.”

Friday was one of those games. The Celtics were in control for most of a furious fourth quarter until Terry flipped in a layup to give Boston a 90-81 lead with 4:29 left. The Hawks held the Celtics to just four points the rest of regulation, with Pierce, naturally, scoring both baskets. Early in overtime, it appeared Atlanta held the momentum. But after buckets by Al Horford and Jeff Teague gave Atlanta a four-point edge, Pierce scored a well-defended layup, then drove the lane again and found Jeff Green for a bouncy, teasing three to regain the lead.

Once again, the Hawks responded and Josh Smith drained his own three. And again, Pierce re-responded, of however one wants to put it. Pierce corralled the ball after an offensive rebound by Avery Bradley and hit a rainbow three to give the Celtics another brief lead. Smith knotted the score by splitting a pair of free throws, which only served to set the tone for Pierce’s final drive-and-kick to Terry. That was a play that broke down, for which Rivers’ white board could claim no credit. It was simply a matter of Pierce making a play and Terry hitting the shot.

After Terry converted a pair of free throws to ice the win, the performance was vintage Pierce — in that, a lot of people hardly noticed it. Pierce’s efforts down the stretch of regulation and creating plays from nothing in overtime were forgotten in the hoopla of Terry’s big shot. Since Rondo’s injury, Pierce’s scoring is down but he is playing as well as he has in years. Over his last 30 games, Pierce has averaged 17.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game as he fulfills his stated purpose to “give the game what it needs.”

Not all of Pierce’s clutch plays are shots. Sometimes they are well-placed back picks to free teammates for open layups, but most of the time they should be easier to detect for even casual fans. ┬áSure, those final, grinding possessions might be agonizing to watch, but there is a reason Rivers keeps putting the ball in Pierce’s hands. The coach knows that chances are, good things for the Celtics are still more likely to happen than not.

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