On a night when Dwyane Wade elevated his game for the Miami Heat in Game 3 of their playoff series with the visiting Celtics, making every big play and hitting every big shot down the stretch, it was not Wade but Paul Pierce who emerged as the real hero.
The Celtics and Heat were tied at 98 with 11.7 seconds to play, and they had one last chance to win the game in regulation and steer clear of an unpredictable overtime period. They had to find one guy to hit one shot that would change the course of this series, and there was no doubt Friday night that that guy would be Pierce.
"He's a star," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his captain. "And the reason I say that is he never loses his confidence. The play before, he glanced over and was like, 'Let's go.' Meaning he wanted it. You always like when your players do that."
Pierce had carried the Celtics on his back down the stretch. He scored the team's last nine points of the third quarter, opening a solid Boston lead heading into the final 12 minutes. He made two deadly 3-pointers in the fourth, keeping the Celtics in the game when the going got tough. And when it came down to one shot to win it all at the end, he deserved the ball. So he got it.
"We put all our faith in his hands, that last shot," Ray Allen said. "He came through for us. It's great to have somebody that can make shots like that at the buzzer."
It could have been Ray knocking down that last shot — lord knows he's made it countless times before. It could have been Kevin Garnett. It could have been the veteran Michael Finley. But this was Pierce's night, and he came through. He kept it himself, he stared down Miami's Dorell Wright to the final second, and knocked down the perfect buzzer-beating jumper from his sweet spot, just right of the top of the key. The way Pierce's night had gone, it felt like destiny. This one belonged to him.
Pierce hasn't been a dominating scorer every night for this team. He hasn't needed to be. But tonight, when his team demanded it, he stepped up. That's what a captain does.
"I've told you guys who have watched me over the last three years since we've brought in Kevin and Ray — obviously my scoring's been down, so I've tried to do other things and bring to the game what the game needs that day," Pierce said. "That's what I try to do night in and night out — just try to figure out what role I'm going to play that night.
"It's not always going to be my scoring, where I have to go out and have big scoring nights. Those days are over with. I just try to pick my spots and give the game what I feel like it needs. Tonight I felt like it did need my scoring. I felt that, and I decided to be a little bit more aggressive. It paid off."
Did it ever.
If Pierce misses that shot, Game 3 goes to overtime, and the Heat get a chance to feed off of the energy of their home crowd, play with poise down the stretch and pull out a close win. This could easily be a 2-1 series with the Heat at home for Game 4, ready to even the score.
Instead, the Celtics are one win away from a sweep.
They haven't swept a playoff series since 1992. That was a first-rounder, back when the postseason opened with a short best-of-five series; the Celtics haven't completed a four-game sweep since their championship run in 1986.
Thanks to one huge jumper from Paul Pierce, the Celtics are on the verge of finishing the Heat off and cruising into round two.
You can never underestimate the power of a huge clutch performance from your captain. Pierce proved that Friday night.
"He's starting to get his rhythm," Rivers said. "And when he gets his rhythm, we can be really good."