Paul Pierce has been through a lot in the NBA. He’s been to the top of the mountain and the bottom of the barrel. He’s been a nine-time All-Star and a Finals MVP; he’s also slaved away thanklessly for a last-place club.
But there’s one thing he still hasn’t done.
“I’ve never been part of a sweep,” Pierce said. “I don’t like to think about that stuff.”
The reasons for Pierce’s mental block should be obvious. Remember last year? Twice the Celtics built 3-0 leads in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and both times they had trouble finishing the deal. They went up 3-0 on the Heat in round one, but then Dwyane Wade went off for 46 points and torched the Celtics to force a fifth game. They also led the East finals 3-0, but Orlando came back and won twice. People started comparing the C’s to the 2010 Bruins.
This team knows how to win three games in a series, but that fourth one is tough.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do,” Pierce said. “That closeout game, regardless of who it is, it’s one of the hardest games. You expect a team to be their best, play their hardest. When their backs are against the wall, they’re trying to do anything.”
The Celtics have a history of struggling to seal the deal. In fact, they haven’t swept a playoff series since 1992, when they beat the Pacers 3-0 in the first round. That was 21 series ago.
So here’s where the C’s stand now. They’re up 3-0, but it’s not the most impressive 3-0. They stole two games at home by snapping out of a funk in the fourth quarter. It took perfect execution, perfect shooting and a couple lucky calls to put them in the driver’s seat in Boston. They won Game 3 against a depleted Knicks team without two of their three best players.
The Celtics are one win away from waltzing into the next round. But it hasn’t been easy so far, and it won’t be any easier in Game 4 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s probably going to be the hardest game of the series,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to expect that. We can’t get frustrated. We can’t get rattled. We’ve got to expect them to throw the kitchen sink at us, pretty much. Hard fouls, aggressive play, we’ve got to expect everything tomorrow.”
The Celtics have had their difficulties before in closeout games. They blew a 3-2 lead in the Finals last year and squandered a championship; they collapsed from up 3-2 against the Magic the year before. Numerous times in 2009 and ’10 they lost closeout games on the road but later recovered to finish the deal.
Pierce has been through it. He’s never swept a series, but he sure has blown his chances. He knows the perils of losing a game like Sunday.
“You just don’t want to give a team confidence,” he said. “Any little bit of confidence you give a team, you never know what can happen. I don’t want to be a part of the team that goes down in NBA history as the first team to give up a 3-0 lead.”